Building a Better Jesus


By Stained glass: Alfred Handel, d. 1946[1], photo: Toby Hudson

Jesus was such a good guy. Great with children. Pretty big fan of fishing. Amazing story teller. Fought religious establishment. Wow. Love that guy. But there are some things in Scripture that aren’t quite as easy to swallow. In Matthew 21:44, he is the stone that will crush those who do not produce fruit. Or in John 8:56-59, when Jesus said:

“Your father Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day. He saw it and was glad.” So the Jews said to him, “You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?” Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.” So they picked up stones to throw at him, but Jesus hid himself and went out of the temple.

And there we have it. Good teacher Jesus just evoked immortality and equality with God (through use of “I Am”) in one sentence. What can someone do with the supernatural, God-claiming passages about Jesus if they’re shooting for “good teacher” Jesus as a goal?

S. Lewis, in Mere Christianity, challenges that Jesus must be placed in one of three categories: liar, lunatic or Lord. A fourth category, legend, has been added over time as people discuss the issue.

  1. Jesus was a liar. He knew he wasn’t God. He knew he couldn’t forgive sin. He lied.
  2. Jesus was a lunatic. He thought he was God. He thought he could forgive sin. He was crazy.

In both of these two option, the reliability and trustworthiness of his teaching are compromised. He’s not a good teacher if he’s crazy or a liar. There is another popular option.


  1. Jesus is a legend. He never said he was God. He never said he could forgive sin. His followers came back at a later date an embellished the legend of his life to give his teachings and their careers more authority or appeal.


There are a few issues with the legend approach:

  • Jesus had several disciples who recorded the events and vouched for the their veracity. The multiplicity of gospel accounts (even if Matthew, Mark, and Luke are deemed to be from the same source) complicates the level of organization which would be needed to align the embellishments.
  • Jesus’ disciples were still alive when some of the writings were being distributed. If Jesus’ followers were making the stories up, then others would have been able to call them out on the lies (inconsistencies)
  • Discoveries of fragments from the gospel of John date optimistically as early-second century in Egypt. Early Christian writings state the John died at or near 100 AD in Ephesus. This would mean that his gospel account was available within 17-50 years of his life and had time to have been distributed (after being copied by hand) as far as Egypt. With a date as early as 117 AD on this fragment, it is possible that some of the people who knew and followed Jesus (~33-37 AD) would still be alive to dispute the claims of the book of John.
  • Finally, and perhaps most importantly, if Jesus was so gentle, kind, and non-threatening, then why did the Jewish and/or Roman authorities kill him? He would have been no threat if all of the supernatural activity and God-claims came at a later date by other parties.


So, if Jesus was not a liar, a lunatic, or a legend, then:

  1. Jesus is Lord. He claimed to be one with God the Father. He claimed the ability to forgive sin. He claimed to be the only way to be reconciled with God. He is the highest authority – Lord.


We must be careful, as we read Scripture, to not attempt to build a better Jesus. We must not glance over or apologize for the Jesus who reprimanded sinners, tossed the tables of religious profiteers, or promised to come back in judgment of every human soul. If you have, however, trusted in him as Lord, then you have heeded the warning of his harshest words. You have trusted in his most outlandish claims to Deity. You have found your life in his supernatural resurrection and immortal reign. A dismissal of those aspects of the account of his life is a dismissal of his purpose. And his purpose was hope for you and the whole world.

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