Liar, Lunatic or Lord?
Buddha, for example, never claimed perfection. He was concerned with “tanya” — the corrupt desire that produces sin. It was a personal struggle for him, and he spent a lot of time trying to figure out how he could personally be delivered from it. He tried indulgence. He tried denial. He tried living a hedonistic life for a while. Then he tried being living an ascetic life. Neither extreme worked.
He came up with the eight-fold path that would bring him to a trance-like state where he surrendered his conscious identity and achieved nirvana. When he snapped out of that trance, he looked around and said to his followers, “You should try this. It worked wonders for me. Maybe it’ll work for you, too.”
He never claimed to have authority or to be the center of the universe. He told his followers (and this is part of their sacred writings) that he wasn’t worthy to lead them. He just claimed to be a guy who found something that worked for him and might work for others as well.
Mohamed never claimed perfection either. He claimed to be Allah’s prophet. He claimed to have had impressive visions of eternity, but he never claimed to have been there to see it all firsthand. Any authority he had came simply from the claim that Allah had chosen to reveal certain things to him. In other words, his religious experience was what supposedly gave him authority.
Confucius never even claimed a religious experience. He did a logical analysis of society and pointed to that study as his authority.
None of these other religious leaders claimed to have authority resident within them. None of them claimed perfection. None of them offered to die in the place of others.
Jesus is categorically different from the others. He is what C.S. Lewis called the “shocking alternative”. Either he actually thought he was telling the truth but was too naive or foolish to know how ridiculous his claims were (thus eliminating him from being called “wise”) or he knew what he was saying wasn’t true (thus eliminating him from being called “moral”). Here are Lewis’ words:
I am trying here to prevent anyone 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 the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg — 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. But let us not come with any patronising nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to. (C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, pp. 55-56)