An Easter question -- liar, lunatic or Lord?

Every now and then, messiahs slip past newspaper security personnel and pay visits to religion reporters, offering scoops on the end of the world and other hot stories.

Guards can spot those who wear robes or offer other clues that they may not currently reside in a known zip code. Nevertheless, a prophet who looked like Elvis once reached my desk at the Charlotte Observer. The great religion writer Russell Chandler, now retired from the Los Angeles Times, has threatened to write a memoir entitled "Messiahs I Have Known."

The Rev. Lee Strobel encountered a few messiahs in mental hospitals during his years as the Chicago Tribune's ultra-skeptical legal affairs reporter.

"I met people who said they were Jesus on a fairly regular basis," he said. "But anyone can claim to be God. The question is whether they can back that up. That's why the resurrection is so crucial for Christians."

This controversy never dies. Thus, every Easter magazines and newspapers try to find a way to put Jesus on page one, often focusing on debates about the resurrection, life after death or the truthfulness of Christian scriptures.

Book publishers feed off this cycle as well, offering a stream of works by skeptics and believers. Most cover familiar territory in scripture, archeology, history and church tradition. But one chapter in Strobel's popular "The Case For Christ" veers off the usual path. It's called "Was Jesus Crazy When He Claimed to be the Son of God?"

This was one of the hard questions that Strobel asked two decades ago, when he dissected his wife's newborn Christian faith using his Yale Law School skills. He spent two years investigating the evidence relevant to the story of Jesus and, in the end, the atheist was converted and then ordained. He currently is "writer in residence" at the giant Saddleback Community Church in Orange County, Calif.

Most Americans say that they believe in God, Jesus and the Bible. But in this tolerant age, noted Strobel, many gloss over the church's claims that Jesus is the only savior, for all humanity. This raises two questions: Did Jesus say that he is divine? If he did, was he sane?

Here is how Christian apologist C.S. Lewis put it: "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."

Strobel asked the president of the American Association of Christian Counselors to describe sanity. The key, said Gary Collins, is not what a person says or even what emotions he displays. Psychologists are primarily interested in whether a person responds to his environment in a way that is inappropriate.

Thus, it's normal that Jesus wept when a friend died. Faced with injustice, he got mad. He knew that many opposed him, yet did not slide into paranoia. Jesus seems to have related well to ordinary people, yet also to leaders and crowds. Even some of the radical events in his life -- such as his extreme fasting in the wilderness -- fit within the norms for mystics of his day.

Yet when Jesus made messianic claims, many immediately said that he was insane and irrational. Disciples answered those charges by saying his actions, especially his miracles, are not those of a madman. The debates rage on, today. Some critics -- such as British author A. N. Wilson now suggest that Jesus was a skilled hypnotist.

What's impossible to find is a safe niche in the muddy middle, said Strobel.

"We have so many people today who say they believe, but they live their lives like atheists," he said. "They want to say that Jesus' teachings were nice and that he was wise and compassionate, but then they don't follow through and make a decision about his central claim. At some point an honest person has to ask -- was Jesus the Son of God, or a madman?"