Image by le vent le cri.
I think I’ve read more of C.S. Lewis’ work than any other author. I love his fiction, especially Narnia, Til We Have Faces and The Great Divorce, his autobiography Surprised by Joy, his non-fiction–especially Miracles, The Problem of Pain, and The Abolition of Man. The man was brilliant, and has shaped my theology in profound ways. But one thing he was not is a biblical scholar, and no where is this more evident than in his famous trilemma. As one of my tweeps appealed to it yesterday, Lewis argues that Jesus’ claims to be divine prove he must be either a “liar, lunatic, or Lord”:
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. (Mere Christianity pg. 52)
There is a certain plausibility to this, which no doubt explains it popularity. The Gospels are, after all, filled with claims that Jesus is “out of his mind” (e.g. Mark 3:21), demon-possessed (e.g. Mark 3:22; John 7:20), or the “Son of God” (e.g. Mark 15:39). John even calls Jesus “my Lord and my God” (John 20:28). Yet despite all this, the “trilemma” really is not a good argument.
The problem is that Lewis assumes Jesus really did claim to be God, which is far from unquestionable. If you already accept the Gospels as perfectly accurate then of course you are going to accept that Jesus is no mere man (liar, lunatic or otherwise), and you don’t need the trilemma to prove it to you. But whether the Gospels (especially the earlier ones) really do mean to imply that Jesus is “God” in the full Trinitarian sense is, shall we say, highly debatable. More importantly, whether the Gospel accounts of Jesus can themselves be trusted is precisely what is at issue, so it’s no use assuming what you are trying to prove.
To say that the historical reliability of the Gospels is disputable is an understatement. Virtually every aspect of Jesus’ life is questioned, with some denying that there ever was a historical Jesus in the first place. While most would reject such extreme skepticism, there is no doubt that the Gospels as we have them are shaped as much by subsequent Christian reflection as they are by the actual life and teachings of Jesus. They have been shaped and crafted–and edited–to present Jesus in certain ways, and it is hardly a foregone conclusion that the claims of divinity they do include–however we understand them–were actually spoken by Jesus the man.
The point is that there is no reason at all for a person who does not already accept the Gospels as inerrant to accept that Liar, Lunatic or Lord are the only options. A non-Christian can just as easily posit that Jesus was a well-loved religious leader and martyr whose followers later came to see as divine, and attributed such claims to him after the fact. Now there may or may not be good reasons to doubt this alternative explanation, but the mere fact that it is a possibility makes Lewis’ argument a false “trilemma.” As N.T. Wright notes:
It doesn’t work as history, and it backfires dangerously when historical critics question his reading of the Gospels.
Christians really need to stop repeating it, as its effectiveness–if it has any at all–depends entirely upon ignorance of the state of historical Jesus research. Really, given how often the argument has been debunked, I’m shocked that Christians still appeal to it, but I could say the same about belief in young earth creationism or the idea that Jesus never existed, so what can you do?
UPDATE: See the comments for some clarifications on this post; I’ve also posted a follow-up here.