Imagine walking through a shopping mall and overhearing a young man say the following things:
“I am the Messiah.”
“I am the Son of Man.”
“You are of this world; I am not of this world.”
“My sheep listen to my voice, and I give them eternal life.”
“All authority in heaven and on earth is mine.”
“You must love me more than anyone else, even your own family.”
What would you think of such a person? Humble, modest, and unpretentious? Or egotistical with delusions of grandeur?
I’d personally go with the latter.
The above examples are, of course, things that Jesus is alleged to have said*. Should we then regard Jesus as a megalomaniac, or is it possible to think of him as humble and modest?
If there was evidence that Jesus’ words were true, i.e. that Jesus was, in fact, the son of God and the savior of all mankind, then we would certainly be obliged to cut him some slack. It’s always good to tell the truth, even if it puts you at risk of sounding egotistical. If you’re the son of God, you’re the son of God.
The problem is that there is no independent evidence that Jesus’ claims are true. We have only the claims themselves. So, Christianity has managed a sort of bootstrapping exercise. It starts with the development of a culture of respect and admiration for Jesus. Then, when new Christians hear Jesus’ claims for the first time, their senses have already been dulled to the egotistical nature of those claims, and instead they see a humble man telling it like it is. However, the very culture of respect and admiration that primed this attitude is itself based on nothing more than the original biblical claims.
This, to me, is a fascinating aspect of religious culture: it changes people’s attitudes so profoundly that they will happily embrace a personality which, if it were taken out of the religious context, would be summarily condemned – by the exact same people – as egotistical and delusional.
And religion is not the only area in which this sort of brainwashing happens. Tyrants and dictators have taken advantage of their subjects in this way since time immemorial. A recent example is the now departed Kim Jong Il, who instilled a cult-like atmosphere of reverence toward himself, the “Dear Leader”. It’s interesting that many Christians here in the U.S. decry such manipulation, yet they fail to see it in their own religion. Jesus is just telling it like it is, right?
* Here are Jesus’ words in full:
The woman said, “I know that Messiah” (called Christ) “is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.”
Then Jesus declared, “I, the one speaking to you—I am he.” (John 4:25-26)
Jesus heard that they had thrown him out, and when he found him, he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?”
“Who is he, sir?” the man asked. “Tell me so that I may believe in him.”
Jesus said, “You have now seen him; in fact, he is the one speaking with you.” (John 9:35-37)
You are from below; I am from above. You are of this world; I am not of this world. (John 8:23)
The works I do in my Father’s name testify about me, but you do not believe because you are not my sheep. My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand. (John 10:25-28)
Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me”. (Matthew 28:18)
Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. (Matthew 10:37)