This post will address a fundamental question: How do you persuade someone that Jesus was divine, was the Son of God? This is important, and I think framing this issue properly is a little more complicated than it first appears.
Caveats. Consider: You can persuade someone to believe that God exists without persuading him that Jesus was divine. That’s pretty obvious, of course, since there are lots of non-Christian religions. And the conversion process for, to give a famous example, C.S. Lewis was a two-step one: First he was persuaded that there was a God, and later he became a Christian. I suspect this is a common path.
This is not to say that persuading someone that God exists is not important. To the contrary, accomplishing that as a first step may be the best way to persuade some people to become Christians. See this discussion elsewhere on this blogsite.
I’ll also note that the following three issues are related but distinct: whether the Old Testament is true, whether the New Testament is true, and whether Jesus is divine.
You can obviously believe the first proposition without believing the other two; that describes Jews. On the other hand, once you believe that Jesus is Lord, it follows that you have to believe that the Old Testament is Scripture, (at least) insofar as Jesus cited it as such. And of course if you believe the New Testament, then for that reason — and because the Old Testament is cited as Scripture throughout the New Testament — you are likely to accept those parts of the Old Testament that are not superseded by it. And of course you will accept the divinity of Jesus.
If you believe in the basic veracity of the Gospels, it seems you would have to accept Jesus as Lord, but I suppose you would not necessarily have to accept everything in the Gospels as Scripture, and you certainly would not have to accept all the other New Testament books. For example, Martin Luther did not want Hebrews, James, Jude, or Revelation in the canon (he may have changed his mind about the three besides James, however — see D.A. Carson & Douglas J. Moo, An Introduction to the New Testament 735 n.24).
I point all this out not to belabor the obvious, but because I think that, obvious or not, it is sometimes overlooked, and that the task of persuading someone to be a Christian does not mean that we have to persuade them in the inerrancy of all Scripture in both Testaments, even if we do have to persuade him or her of more than the simple existence of God.
The Gospels. With those caveats out of the way, let’s return to the question I raised in the first place, which I hope I have sharpened: How do you persuade someone to believe that Jesus was divine?
I suppose my main point in this post boils down to this: It is hard to persuade someone that Jesus was divine unless you persuade that person of the basic historicity of the Gospels. That is, it would be unusual for someone to conclude that Jesus existed and was divine without relying on the evidence in the Gospels. You might be able to deduce the existence of God without Scripture, but not the existence of Christ in particular; and you might be able to conclude that there was a man named Jesus without the New Testament, but not that He was God.
So you’re going to have to make some arguments to the potential convert about the Gospels. As discussed near the end of this post, there are other arguments, too — but the Gospels would seem to be the most important evidence that Jesus was divine, and the most direct way to persuade someone of that fact.
(1) To believe them, you consider first the genuineness of the documents qua documents. That is, for example, you have to believe that they were written not by a conspiracy of clerics during the late Middle Ages, but in the first century by early Christians. And, sure enough, there is overwhelming evidence that this is the case.
(2) Then you read them and see that they read like journalism, not like an attempt at literary fiction or myth. You learn that they are based on eyewitness evidence.
(3) You would then ask, Why would anyone make something like this up? You would also ask, Why would any Jew who took religion seriously deliberately blaspheme and defy God? And you would ask, Why would anyone willingly change his life and live and even die for a story he knew to be false?
(4) Consider also that, if you have no reason to doubt and you believe in the truth of the non-supernatural parts of the Gospels, you will find the supernatural parts to be more persuasive as well.
Most famously, if you believe that Jesus existed and said the things He is reported to have said, especially including His claim to divinity, then you must confront C.S. Lewis’s trilemma: Is someone like that most likely to be a liar, or a lunatic — or the Lord?
Likewise, if you believe the historical evidence that there was an empty tomb, then you have to ask, What is the most likely explanation for that empty tomb?
And then there is also the matter of explaining the post-death appearances of Jesus in the Gospels and Acts (and Paul’s account of them in his letters). It would not have been difficult to produce contradictory witnesses in many of the cases — unless there weren’t any.
There’s more: If Jesus wasn’t performing miracles, what accounts for the crowds? If He were an obvious sham, what accounts for the Apostles and other followers? Mohammed offered plunder and political leadership, but what did Jesus offer?
Finally, if there was not a Resurrection, then what accounts for the changed behavior of the Apostles?
Other Bible Evidence. This is not to say that the rest of the New Testament does not also contain evidence that Jesus was Christ. As just noted, the changed behavior of the Apostles is evidence of the Resurrection. And that behavior is documented not just or even principally in the Gospels, but in Acts (and in the letters from Peter and John); I should throw in here Jesus’ brother James, who was apparently not a believer before the Resurrection, but certainly was afterwards (maybe this describes Jude, too).
In particular, Acts tells us the story of Paul’s conversion — as do his letters — and how do we account for Paul’s 180-degree turn unless he really did meet the risen Christ on the road to Damascus? Paul is clearly not a stupid, ignorant, flighty, or incompetent man, and why would he have undergone the travails he underwent and written so brilliantly and worked so hard to establish churches, to say nothing of having his head chopped off in Rome, if he didn’t believe that Jesus was divine? To tweak C.S. Lewis’s dilemma, we have to ask whether Paul was a liar, a lunatic, or the Lord’s witness. And why would Luke have written not only his Gospel but also Acts if he — who was also no dummy and who traveled with Paul and must have known him well — thought Paul a charlatan or kook?
And the Old Testament can be helpful, too, in persuading people that Jesus is divine. Consider: If you conclude independently that there might be some truth to the Old Testament, then you would be impressed — as Pascal was — in how many Old Testament prophecies were fulfilled by Him. That is, if you believe that the Old Testament made many prophecies — and it’s hard to deny that such prophecies were made in those old texts, even if you don’t believe in all or any of the supernatural parts of the Old Testament — then it is remarkable that this man Jesus fulfills them.
Additional Arguments. If you succeed in that basic argument, if you at least have the potential convert close to accepting the basic historical truth of the Gospels, then you can use these powerful add-on arguments from the Old Testament and, especially, elsewhere in the New Testament to close the deal and push them over the top. And there’s more — for example, the following:
- There is the fact that believing in Him has indisputably saved lives that seemed unsalvageable.
- There are arguments that Jesus’ divinity helps to make sense of a lot of things that might otherwise be harder, though not necessarily impossible, to explain. As C.S. Lewis said, “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the Sun has risen, not only because I see it but because by it, I see everything else.” As Pascal discusses in Pensees, how odd is man, with his huge capacity for both nobility and depravity: But this seems less odd, is indeed no surprise at all, if one has a Christian worldview.
- In other ways, too, Christianity makes a lot of sense, might even reflect the way you would run the universe if you were God, as I discuss elsewhere on this blogsite, here.
I don’t think that arguments like these would lead someone to deduce the existence of Christ if we didn’t have the Gospel texts, but they might cause him to read them with more of an open mind.
Concluding Thoughts. To come full circle, I’ll note that the claim that Jesus is Lord is consistent with there being a god, and of that god being of the sort that we would expect Him to be. Thus, if someone is persuaded that God exists, the next question is Who, exactly, is He? And, as I discussed in the first post on this blogsite, the Christian trinitarian God is the best candidate for the one we would, could, and should believe in.
One last point one can make to a potential convert: Even if you think that these arguments are not 100 percent convincing, you have to ask, Are they convincing enough to warrant my believing — when the penalties for denying God incorrectly are so much greater than the downside to mistaken belief, and when the rewards for correct belief are so much greater than the satisfaction of being right about living a purposeless existence? That, too — that is, Pascal’s Wager — is discussed elsewhere and often on this blogsite.