I know this might seem like a silly question for a Catholic to ask, but how do we know Jesus is divine?
Thank you for submitting this question, and let me assure you, this isn’t a silly question at all. As I’ve written repeatedly of late in this column, it’s a good thing to ask questions about our faith in order to better understand it. And, as I’ve said many times, we can’t love what we don’t know, so if we’re going to love God more deeply, we need to understand him more fully. This question in particular is a crucial one, as it goes to the very heart of our Catholic faith.
Jesus is unique in a great many ways, but among founders of world religions, his claim to divinity truly sets him apart, and thus sets Christianity apart. When we consider the founders of the other major religions throughout history, we see that in every case they pointed not to themselves but to some set of teachings, which they claimed either to receive from a god or from enlightenment or from philosophical reflection. In effect, they said “follow these teachings” in order to receive truth or salvation or enlightenment.
Jesus, however, said, “Follow me,” and again, we should be struck by that. It’s too easy for us to reduce Jesus simply to a teacher of morality. Yes, Jesus told us to love and care for our neighbors, but as we know from the Gospels, that was merely a summary of what the Old Testament already taught. Jesus didn’t so much reveal the Great Commandment for the first time as he did expand it to include not only fellow Jews, but all peoples.
So the bold “newness” of Jesus wasn’t the moral code which he taught, and therefore, to be a Christian isn’t merely about morality. Rather, the radicality of Jesus is found in his claim—made only indirectly at first, but later more explicitly—to actually be God, and therefore that we are to follow not merely his teachings, but to follow him.
But the question remains: how do we know he actually is God? After all, there have been people throughout history who’ve made similar claims, but they aren’t taken seriously. Why do we—or should we—take Jesus’ claim seriously?
There are a variety of ways to show Jesus is God, and in the Additional Resources link found below, you’ll find a few of the best resources to dive even deeper into this question, but for now, we’ll mention one of the most important ones.
One of the most powerful arguments for Jesus’ divinity was popularized in modern times by the 20th century British author C.S. Lewis, probably best known as the author of the Chronicles of Narnia. Lewis was a convert to Christianity from atheism, and he argued that we know Jesus is God because it’s the only answer to the question of Jesus’ identity that makes sense. The argument goes like this: Jesus claimed to be God. So either Jesus was lying, or he was crazy, or he was who he said he was. (This is often called the Lord, liar or lunatic argument.) There really isn’t another option. Given his claim to be God, Jesus must be one of those three things: a liar, a lunatic or the Lord.
Lewis and Christians throughout the centuries have noted that when you read the Gospels, neither of the other two options holds up. Whatever one believes about Jesus’ identity, it’s clear that he lived a moral, upright life, one completely in contrast to how a liar behaves. Not only that, but people always lie in order to gain something for themselves. But what did Jesus “gain” by claiming to be God? Death on a cross! Simply put, the claim that Jesus is a liar isn’t backed up by the evidence of his life.
The same holds true for the claim that he must have been a lunatic. We know how lunatics behave, and Jesus didn’t behave like a lunatic. Not even his opponents believed he was crazy—they took him at his word and were scandalized by it.
So, if he was neither a lunatic, nor a liar, there is only one option left: he must have been who he said he was—the Lord of heaven and earth.
This is just a sketch of the argument Lewis and others have made, and again, there are countless other arguments for Jesus’ divinity. If this is a topic that is of interest to you, I’d encourage you to go online to the link below for more resources. Our belief that Jesus is divine is not merely an opinion, but is true, and is backed up by logic and history. May he give us the strength to deepen our faith in him.
Chris Burgwald holds a doctorate in theology and is the director of discipleship formation for the Diocese of Sioux Falls.