Christology Series: Evidence for Christ's Deity
Evidence for Christ’s Deity—His Teaching and the Resurrection
When Jesus came to the area of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” They answered, “Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “You are blessed, Simon son of Jonah, because flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but my Father in heaven! And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overpower it.
Who was Jesus? In Matthew 16:13-18, when Jesus asked the disciples who people said he was, they gave various answers: He was a prophet, John the Baptist, the second coming of Elijah. Essentially, the answer people came up with was that Jesus was a righteous man or a good prophet.
But, when Peter was asked about Jesus’ identity, he replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Now we should understand that this was a very controversial claim; one which ultimately led to Christ’s execution. Consider how the Jews responded to Christ’s claim of God being his Father in John 5:17-18:
So he told them, “My Father is working until now, and I too am working.” For this reason the Jewish leaders were trying even harder to kill him, because not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was also calling God his own Father, thus making himself equal with God.
Jesus claimed to be equal with God, which was blasphemous to Jews. Likewise, in John 10:30, he claimed that he and the Father were one. His followers taught this also. In John 1:1-3, John said:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was fully God. The Word was with God in the beginning. All things were created by him, and apart from him not one thing was created that has been created.
The “Word” was John’s favorite name for Jesus. Jesus was the very communication of God. He was with God in the beginning and was God. He created the earth. Likewise, in 2 Peter 1:1, Peter called Jesus “our God and Savior.” This is what separates Christ from many other founders of religions such as Buddha and Muhammad, he claimed to be God and his followers taught the same.
Who was Jesus? Though Jesus taught that he was the Son of God and died because of it and his disciples taught the same and were persecuted for it, most today would not answer the question the way they did. Like the early Jews, they would say Jesus was a good man, a wise teacher, or a prophet but not God. For example, a secular book published by Cambridge Press in 2013 called Who’s Bigger? ranked Jesus as the most significant figure in all of human history by using quantitative analysis.[i] Likewise, the Koran calls Jesus “the greatest above all in this world and in the world to come” (Imran v. 45) and describes him as “holy”—meaning without sin (Sura 19:19). However, when considering these high praises written about Jesus, both fall short of saying what Jesus and his followers said—that Jesus was God.
In this study, we will answer the question, “Was Jesus God?” We will do this by considering several evidences that point to his deity.
Jesus’ Teachings as Evidence of His Deity
As mentioned, the most commonly accepted view of Jesus is that he was simply a good man, moral teacher, or a prophet from God. Something we must then ask: “Are these common conclusions about who Jesus was really feasible, considering all that Jesus said and taught?” Let’s reflect on a few controversial statements Jesus said:
1. Jesus’ Claim of Resurrecting Himself
Hypothetically, let’s say that during dinner time at a restaurant, a person stood on a table and started publicly declaring, “Shoot me! Shoot me! And, in three days I will raise myself from the dead!” What would everybody think? They would probably question, “Is this guy OK? Did he forget his medications?” People would think the man was crazy, immediately call 911, and try to get him help.
However, that scenario is very similar to something Christ did while alive. In John 2:19, he said to a crowd, “Destroy this temple [referring to his body] and in three days I will raise it up again.” When considering Christ’s words, it would be illogical to call Jesus a good man, or wise, moral teacher. Good, moral people don’t go around encouraging people to kill them and declaring they will resurrect themselves.
2. Jesus’ Claim of Forgiving Sins
In addition, consider another illustration about the same hypothetical man. Outside of the downtown courtroom, this man is now claiming to forgive people who have been charged with crimes. As robbers, prostitutes, and murderers are escorted to jail, the man continually says to them, “I forgive you.” This would be fine if he had a personal relationship with these criminals and they had harmed him in some way, but the man doesn’t know these people and hasn’t been harmed by them. Only a person hurt by another can forgive his or her sins. Again, this would be strange.
However, this again mirrors something that Christ did. In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus forgave the sins of a paralytic, which angered the religious leaders who were watching. Mark 2:5-7 details this:
When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” Now some of the experts in the law were sitting there, turning these things over in their minds: “Why does this man speak this way? He is blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?”
As mentioned, the religious leaders were baffled by Christ’s words and considered it blasphemy. Who can forgive sins but God?
Most of us would find a person professing to forgive our sins whom we have not harmed very strange. Again, this is exactly what Christ did. Is it really possible that Christ could be a great moral teacher and say ridiculous things like this?
3. Jesus’ Claim of Judging the World
In addition to the previous scenarios, this hypothetical man is now standing at a major intersection and declaring to all who pass by that he is going to judge the world—separating people like a shepherd separates sheep and goats. The sheep will go to heaven and the goats to hell. Again, wouldn’t this seem strange and possibly scary? To make this even worse, this man claimed to be the Son of God and that only those who follow him are sheep who will go to heaven. Because of his teaching, many left their friends, families, and careers to follow this man.
These are all things that Christ taught and did (Matt 25:31-46, John 14:6). Is it really reasonable to accept Christ as a good man, moral teacher, or prophet from God considering his teachings? This is what C.S Lewis, a former professor at Cambridge University, said in his book Mere Christianity:
“I am trying here to prevent anyone from saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept His claim to be God. That is one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of thing Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic… or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was and is the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. … You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God.”
It is impossible to consider what Christ said and did and yet take the common view that he was a good man, moral teacher, or prophet from God. He is either God, like he said, or he was a liar, lunatic, or demon. There is no middle ground.
What Jesus claimed and taught is an evidence for his deity. By itself, it is not very convincing, but it is an important evidence, especially for those who reject Christ’s claim of deity and yet accept him as either a good man, moral teacher, or a prophet from God. What Christ taught and did doesn’t leave those as reasonable options.
Jesus’ Resurrection as Evidence of His Divinity
What are other proofs that Jesus is God? One of the greatest proofs is the historical evidence for Jesus’ resurrection. In 1 Corinthians 15:14, Paul said, “And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is futile and your faith is empty.” Without the resurrection, there is no Christian faith. It is the crux of Christianity.
What are evidences for Christ’s resurrection? Specifically, there are documented eye-witness testimonies. It has often been said that there is more historical evidence for Christ’s resurrection than that Julius Caesar lived.[ii] In fact, Brooke Foss Westcott, a British scholar who lived from 1825-1901, said this: “Indeed taking all the evidence together, it is not too much to say that there is no historic incident better or more variously supported than the resurrection of Christ.”[iii] If we reject the evidence of Christ’s resurrection, then we will have to reject much of what we know about ancient history. We’ll consider evidences for the resurrection below:
The Case of the Empty Tomb
It is well attested historically that Christ died on the cross. Not only do we have the testimony of New Testament authors, but also ancient, secular historians like Josephus and Tacitus who recorded the event in their writings.[iv] In addition, medical experts, using scientific research, have examined the circumstances of Christ’s crucifixion, including the fact that he was beaten to disfigurement before his crucifixion (Is 52:14, John 19:1-3), that people crucified typically died by asphyxiation (not being able to breath), and that he was pierced by a professional executioner to confirm his death (John 19:34), and concluded that Christ couldn’t have survived.[v]
After Christ’s crucifixion, he was buried in a rich man’s tomb. The tomb was sealed and guarded by soldiers. When Christ resurrected, there was a great earthquake, an angel appeared and rolled away the stone, and the guards ran away. Christ was no longer present in the grave, but his clothes laid on the ground (Matt 28:1-10, Mk 16:1-8, Lk 24:1-8, John 20:1-18). The empty grave was first found by some women followers, and then, they told Christ’s disciples. To account for the missing body, the Pharisees accused the disciples of stealing it and paid the guards a large sum to remain quiet (Matt 28:11-15).
Since Christ, without a doubt, died and was buried, we must ask the question, “Was there really an empty tomb?” This is a fundamental question that must be answered affirmatively to prove that Christ did in fact rise from the dead. We’ll consider a few evidences below:
1. Proof of an empty tomb is the fact that Christ’s body was never produced as evidence against the resurrection. Paul taught that the resurrection is the crux of the Christian faith. If Christ has not been raised from the dead, our faith is in vain (1 Cor 15:14, 17). Therefore, in order to stop Christianity from growing, all the authorities had to do was prosecute the disciples (including having the soldiers testify) and produce the body. However, there is no historical record of the disciples ever being charged for stealing Christ’s body.[vi] Instead, the disciples were threatened to stop preaching the resurrection, flogged, jailed, exiled, and most were ultimately martyred. If the Jews had produced the body or even given an adequate explanation for the fact that it was missing, it would have ended Christianity before it began. However, they didn’t. The tomb was empty, and the body was never found.
2. Proof of an empty tomb is the fact that women were the first and primary witnesses of Christ’s resurrection (Matt 28:1-10, John 20:1, 14-18). Since women had such a low standing in ancient Jewish and Roman societies, it wouldn’t make sense for the disciples to fabricate a resurrection story with women witnesses. In fact, in a Jewish court of law, a woman’s testimony was not even admissible.[vii] If the disciples were going to fabricate a resurrection story, they would have surely chosen the initial witnesses to be male. This shows that the Gospel writers faithfully recorded what happened even if it would have been embarrassing or unconvincing in their culture.[viii] When women went to see Christ’s body at the tomb, it was empty. Christ had resurrected.
3. Proof of an empty tomb is the historical lack of tomb veneration. During the period Jesus lived, there were at least fifty tombs of prophets or holy persons, which served as sites of religious worship and veneration.[ix] With Jesus being the founder of Christianity, certainly early followers would have regularly visited his grave if his body was still there. However, there is no record of that.[x] This is further proof that the body was never found and that the tomb was empty.
The empty tomb is a necessary evidence of Christ’s resurrection. What are other evidences?
The Case of the Original Apostles
A strong evidence is that of the original apostles. Who were the apostles? They were twelve devoted followers of Christ who lived and served with him during his three years of ministry. However, when Christ was betrayed by Judas (one of the twelve) and taken by the Jewish and Roman authorities to be put to death for claiming to be the messiah, they all ran away, and some denied him overtly. Though they believed in him, they were not willing to die with him.
While disciples served Christ, he spent a considerable part of his ministry preparing them for his death. He told them that he was going to die and be raised from the dead three days later (John 2:19). He told them that the Jewish authorities were going to put him to death (Matt 16:21) and warned that they would be persecuted for following him (Matt 24:9). He even taught them that to be his disciples, they had to be willing to take up their crosses—being willing to die for their faith (Lk 14:27). However, when everything Christ taught them happened, they fled. None were willing to die with him.
With that said, this leads to one of the strongest evidences for the resurrection. After Christ rose from the dead and appeared to his apostles, each of the remaining eleven were willing to be hated, beaten, jailed, exiled, and even die for their belief. Each of the remaining eleven died for Christ—declaring that he had been resurrected—with the exception of John, who spent the last part of his life exiled on an island for prisoners because of his faith (Rev 1).
If the resurrection were not true and was simply made up, one must ask, “Why would they die for something they knew was a lie?” If the resurrection was false, surely somebody would have broken and said, “OK, OK! We lied! We stole the body and hid him!” But none did. Peter, the head apostle, not only died for Christ but so did his wife. When his wife was being taken to be crucified, he encouraged her with, “Remember the Lord!” And when it was his time to die, he requested to be crucified upside down because he didn’t deserve to die like Christ. From a historical perspective, the apostle’s willingness to die for their belief in the resurrection, means that they truly believed it. The apostles suffering for their belief in the resurrection is a strong proof that it really happened, especially when considering that each of them fled or denied him while he was still alive.
Michael Green, Principal of St. John College, Nottingham, said this:
[The resurrection] was the belief that turned heart broken followers of a crucified rabbi into the courageous witnesses and martyrs of the early church. This was the one belief that separated the followers of Jesus from the Jews and turned them into the community of the resurrection. You could imprison them, flog them, kill them, but you could not make them deny their conviction that on the third day he rose again.[xi]
The Case of James, Jesus’ Brother
Further support for the resurrection is the conversion and martyrdom of James, the brother of Jesus. During Christ’s ministry, James did not believe in him, even though he witnessed his miracles. In fact, John 7:3-5 shares this about James’ and Christ’s other brother, Jude:
So Jesus’ brothers advised him, “Leave here and go to Judea so your disciples may see your miracles that you are performing. For no one who seeks to make a reputation for himself does anything in secret. If you are doing these things, show yourself to the world.” (For not even his own brothers believed in him.)
However, after Christ’s resurrection, he appeared to James. First Corinthians 15:3-7 says:
For I passed on to you as of first importance what I also received—that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day according to the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles.
After seeing the resurrected Christ, James converted. He not only became a follower of Christ but also an apostle—an official witness of the resurrection. He became the leader of the Jerusalem church (Acts 15:13-21) and was known as “James the Just” because of his righteous character. Tradition says his knees were hard like a camel’s knees because of the callouses developed from long periods in prayer.
James even wrote his own epistle which begins with “From James, a slave of God and the Lord Jesus Christ, to the twelve tribes dispersed abroad…” (Jam 1:1). James considered himself a slave of Christ. His belief in Christ not only attests to the resurrection but also to many other doctrines about Christ. It provides evidence for Christ’s sinless life and the virgin birth. James would have known more about these things than anybody else, and yet, he still believed in Christ. He not only believed in Christ, but tradition says he died a martyr, as he was stoned by the Jews around AD 62.[xii]
The Case of the Apostle Paul
Another evidence that must be considered is that of the apostle Paul. Paul was a Pharisee and the son of a Pharisee (Acts 23:6). He was raised knowing Jewish law and the Greek and Hebrew languages. He studied under a renowned rabbi named Gamaliel (Acts 22:3 cf. Acts 5:34). As Christianity grew in popularity among the Jews, Paul zealously persecuted all who believed and taught it. He believed Christians were perverting the true way to salvation which came through the law, and not through faith in Jesus Christ. When Stephen attempted to preach the gospel to the Jews and was stoned for it, the Jews threw his clothes at Paul’s feet (Acts 7:58, 8:1)—demonstrating his consent of their actions. Later, Paul received permission from the Jewish authorities to imprison anybody who professed Christ. However, while on his way to Damascus, Paul had a vision of the resurrected Christ, which blinded him. Acts 9:3-5 describes this experience:
As he was going along, approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” So he said, “Who are you, Lord?” He replied, “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting!
In addition, in 1 Corinthians 15:7-8, Paul shared this about seeing the resurrected Christ and his call to apostleship: “Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as though to one born at the wrong time, he appeared to me also.” Paul considered himself “born at the wrong time” or “abnormally born” (NIV) because his call to apostleship happened after the resurrection, not before, like the original apostles.
Historians throughout the ages have been baffled at the historic figure of Paul—a Pharisee persecuting Christians, who professed to have seen the resurrected Christ, consequently converting, then becoming an apostle who preached to the Gentiles. He wrote almost half of the New Testament, was constantly persecuted for his faith, and died a martyr. It’s the like the historical figure of Hitler, who persecuted Jews, becoming a Jew and the greatest proponent of Judaism at the site of a resurrected Moses. It sounds ridiculous! Yet, that is what happened with Paul, which has always baffled historians.
Consider how drastic Paul’s change was: Not only did he profess Christ who he previously hated, but he also began to love Gentiles. Faithful Jews despised Gentiles. Jewish men commonly prayed a morning blessing thanking God they were Jews and not Gentile dogs, men and not women. But, after Paul’s conversion, he was now the apostle to the Gentiles, as he spent his life on missionary journeys throughout Asia and Europe, seeking to reach them. In addition, Paul was considered the liberator of women. Most Jewish teachers would not teach women, and some wouldn’t even look at them, to not lust; however, Paul championed the teaching of women and their dignity. In 1 Timothy 2:11, he says, “A woman must learn quietly with all submissiveness.” This was radical during those days. Paul the persecutor of Christians, the racist, and misogynist, now loved Jesus, Christians, Gentiles, and women!
Elias Andrews, a noted historian, said this:
Many have found the radical transformation of this Pharisee of the Pharisees the most convincing evidence of the truth and power of religion to which he was converted, as well as the ultimate worth and place of the Person of Christ.[xiii]
In Paul’s writings, he constantly spoke of his conversion and commitment to the resurrected Christ:
I have been crucified with Christ, and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me. So the life I now live in the body, I live because of the faithfulness of the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.
But these assets I have come to regard as liabilities because of Christ. More than that, I now regard all things as liabilities compared to the far greater value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things—indeed, I regard them as dung!—that I may gain Christ
But not only did Paul preach the resurrection, he also died for it. Tradition says he was decapitated in his second Roman imprisonment, around the mid-60s AD. His life is a tremendous evidence for the resurrection.
In fact, a story about two professors at Oxford who were initially antagonistic to Christianity shows the importance of Paul’s conversion. As stated by Josh McDowell in his book, More than a Carpenter:
Two professors at Oxford, Gilbert West and Lord Lyttleton, were determined to destroy the basis of the Christian faith. West was going to demonstrate the fallacy of the resurrection and Lyttleton was going to prove that Saul of Tarsus had never converted to Christianity. Both men came to the opposite conclusion and became ardent followers of Jesus. Lord Lyttleton writes:
The conversion and apostleship of Saint Paul alone, duly considered, was of itself a demonstration sufficient to prove Christianity to be a Divine Revelation.
He concludes that if Paul’s twenty-five years of suffering and service for Christ were a reality, then his conversion was true, for everything he did began with that sudden change. And if his conversion was true, Jesus Christ rose from the dead, for everything Paul was and did he attributed to the sight of the risen Christ.[xiv]
The Case of the Jews in Acts
Possibly, the strongest evidence for the resurrection is the conversion of many of the Jews who convinced Pilate to murder Christ. How is it possible that only weeks after Christ died, that these Jews became followers of Christ? In Acts 2, Peter proclaimed the resurrection of the one they killed and called for their repentance and 3000 of them were converted. Consider the following verses:
Men of Israel, listen to these words: Jesus the Nazarene, a man clearly attested to you by God with powerful deeds, wonders, and miraculous signs that God performed among you through him, just as you yourselves know—this man, who was handed over by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God, you executed by nailing him to a cross at the hands of Gentiles. But God raised him up, having released him from the pains of death, because it was not possible for him to be held in its power.
Therefore let all the house of Israel know beyond a doubt that God has made this Jesus whom you crucified both Lord and Christ.” Now when they heard this, they were acutely distressed and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “What should we do, brothers?” Peter said to them, “Repent, and each one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.
So those who accepted his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand people were added. They were devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.
Why were they converted? They had to be convinced that the resurrection was true. Not only did 3000 convert, but in Acts 4:4, the number grew to 5000. Historically, the early church boomed in Jerusalem, and then because of persecution, it spread throughout the ancient world and exists today as the biggest religion in the world.
How is this possible? It’s baffling. (1) Some have tried to explain it away as a mass hallucination or dream. However, that makes no sense. How can thousands of people have the same hallucination? (2) Some have tried to explain it away as the development of a myth or legend. But again, that is illogical. Myths and legends can take generations to develop. They don’t develop while the original audience is still alive and, certainly, not a few weeks after the event. Conclusions that deny a literal resurrection just don’t make sense.
Again, the New Testament declares that after the resurrection, Christ appeared to the apostles and then 500 people over a period of forty days (1 Cor 15:6, Acts 1:3). These witnesses were throughout Jerusalem. The tomb was empty. The Roman soldiers, who typically would have been executed for failing to protect the tomb apparently were still alive (Matt 28:11-15), and the body of Christ was never found. The Jews who consented to Christ’s death had to be totally convinced of his resurrection, because after publicly committing to Christ, they would have been persecuted for their newfound faith. Probably, contributing to their quick conversion was that fact that right after Christ’s death, there was a major earthquake in Jerusalem and the bodies of other believers were resurrected (Matt 27:50-54). These Jews were convinced that Jesus was the Son of God and that he had resurrected.
Now it must be remembered, this isn’t just something the Bible teaches. These are historical facts about the birth of the early church, well-attested by ancient Jewish and Roman historians. Jesus resurrected from the grave! No other conclusion makes sense.
How do we know Jesus is God? What are some evidences?
1. Evidence for Jesus’ deity is his teachings. It is impossible to accept him as a good man, moral teacher, or prophet, which are the most common views of Jesus, while knowing the things he claimed, including being the Son of God. With the things he said and taught, he would either be a liar, lunatic, or demon.
2. Evidence for Jesus’ deity is the resurrection. As mentioned, there is no ancient historical event more variously supported than the resurrection. If we reject the historical evidence for the resurrection, we must reject much of what we know about ancient history, including the fact that Julius Caesar lived.
Next, we will consider more evidences for Jesus’ deity—both in fulfilled prophecies and his miracles.
[i] Accessed 1/13/2020 from http://content.time.com/time/specials/packages/article/0,28804,2111975_2112269_2112278,00.html
[ii] Accessed 7/22/20 from https://billygraham.org/devotion/evidence-of-jesus/
[iii] Bright, Bill. A Journey Home. Thomas Nelson Publishers. 2003.
[iv] McDowell, Josh. Evidence That Demands a Verdict (p. 276). Thomas Nelson. Kindle Edition.
[v] McDowell, Josh. Evidence That Demands a Verdict (p. 276-277). Thomas Nelson. Kindle Edition.
[vi] McDowell, Josh. Evidence That Demands a Verdict (p. 268). Thomas Nelson. Kindle Edition.
[vii] Accessed 7/24/2020 from https://www.gotquestions.org/why-believe-resurrection.html
[viii] Accessed 7/24/2020 from https://www.gotquestions.org/why-believe-resurrection.html
[ix] McDowell, Josh. Evidence That Demands a Verdict (p. 262). Thomas Nelson. Kindle Edition.
[x] McDowell, Josh. Evidence That Demands a Verdict (p. 262). Thomas Nelson. Kindle Edition.
[xi] Accessed 1/13/2020 from https://www.josh.org/wp-content/uploads/Easter-Articles-Who-Would-die-for-a-lie.pdf
[xii] Accessed 1/13/2019 from https://seanmcdowell.org/blog/did-james-the-brother-of-jesus-die-as-a-martyr
[xiii] McDowell, Joshua. More Than a Carpenter. Chapter “Did You Hear What Happened to Saul?”
[xiv] McDowell, Joshua. More Than a Carpenter. Chapter “Did You Hear What Happened to Saul?”