Posted by: Ken Brown | July 5, 2009

Narnia and the Trilemma

Lucy and the Wardrobe Image copyright Walt Disney

Coincidentally, the very Sunday after I posted a critique of C.S. Lewis’ “trilemma”, our pastor used almost the same argument in his sermon today. To his credit, he did not treat it as a proof of Jesus’ divinity; in fact, he did not apply it to that subject at all. Rather, he pointed out that Lewis uses the very same lying, deluded or true trichotomy in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. When Lucy Pevensie insists to her siblings that she found a whole world called Narnia inside a wardrobe, they ask the Professor in whose home they are staying for advice, and he replies:

Why don’t they teach logic at these schools? There are only three possibilities. Either your sister is telling lies, or she is mad, or she is telling the truth. You know she doesn’t tell lies and it is obvious she is not mad. For the moment then and unless any further evidence turns up, we must assume that she is telling the truth. (pg. 52)

Our pastor, helpfully, used this as an admonition to trust in God rather than as proof of any particular claim, but I think this alternative example can also help clarify the strengths and weaknesses of Lewis’ more famous application of the trilemma. On the one hand, this example is more suitably cautious in its claims, and shows that the generic form of the argument does have a certain sense to it, which boils down to this: If you know a person well enough to trust them, you ought to trust them!

Seen this way, Lewis’ argument in Mere Christianity could be read to mean: If you’ve come to trust the Gospels’ descriptions of Jesus otherwise–for instance, their presentation of his moral teaching–you should be consistent and trust their claims about Jesus’ divinity as well. As several commenters pointed out on my last post, in that context, it is a sensible argument, though not a conclusive one.

Yet that is only half the story. We have already noted that the “bad, mad or God” argument depends on a number of questionable (though not necessarily false) assumptions about the nature of the Gospels and how divinity was understood in the first century, but the Narnia example also reveals a further assumption: For the trilemma to work at all, the claim being made must be unbelievable. If, say, Lucy had instead insisted that the German’s had won the war, she could be wrong without lying or being “mad”; she may simply be mistaken. In that case, evaluating her character might tell you nothing at all about the truth or falsehood of her claim, for obviously even good and sane people make mistakes.

On the other hand, if the claim being considered is sufficiently unbelievable–that a person has had tea in a magical world, or that they are the Son of God, or that they have seen the risen Christ–then it makes sense to say the person making the claim must either be lying, severely deluded, or telling the truth, and if there are good reasons to doubt the first two are true, that points to the third possibility. But that is the most we can ever say: it points to the third possibility, “unless any further evidence turns up” (as Lewis puts it above). The trilemma can never offer proof, since the argument only works if the claim is truly unbelievable, and the more unbelievable it is, the greater the burden of proof it must meet.

However honest and sane Lucy has so far seemed to her siblings, they would be fools to think her word “proved” that a magical world really does exist in the wardrobe. What the Professor’s trilemma should do, however, is convince them to investigate further to see if “any further evidence” does turn up. If, it turned out, no one else was ever able to find anything but coats in the wardrobe, Lucy’s family would have every reason to doubt her story, no matter how trustworthy and sane she seemed to them. She could be telling the truth after all, but is that really more probable than temporary insanity? On the other hand, if her siblings stepped into the wardrobe themselves and found that she was right… well, I think we all know the story.

In fact, unlike too many of those who have used his trilemma since, I think Lewis himself was fully aware of this limitation. Not only does he qualify the claim in the above quotation, but as he later reveals in The Magician’s Nephew, the Professor making this argument in fact did have other reasons to believe Lucy’s story: He too had been to Narnia. The Professor believed Lucy, not because he was convinced by the “logic” of her case, but because he knew first hand that Narnia was real–he had seen it himself.

The Professor’s trilemma, then, is less an attempt to prove Lucy’s case and more an invitation for the children to find out for themselves. At its best, Lewis’ other trilemma should be understood the same way: Though it can never prove that Jesus was God, it should drive us to consider more closely the Gospels’ claims as a whole, to see for ourselves whether they have the ring of truth to them. But more than that, it should drive us to find out for ourselves whether by living in line with their stories we find merely an empty wardrobe, or a whole new world to explore.


  1. […] See the comments for some clarifications on this post; I’ve also posted a follow-up here. Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)Silent Saturday – A Day for Death and […]

  2. It seems to me that you still overstate the Trilemma’s ability to contribute anything to our understanding of Jesus or early Christianty, especially in the last paragraph. Even if one does use the Trilemma as a springboard for going forward with more seeking, you are still no closer to coming to the conclusion Lewis did.

    That is, even if by living in line with their stories we find happiness, goodness, fulfillment, love, etc. and are genuinely changed (“a whole new world to explore”, as you say) there is still no indication whatsoever that Jesus’ claim to divinity is true, as opposed to the stories of him being “good moral teaching.” After all a positive change in your life is what is predicted by both hypotheses, Jesus as God or Jesus as moral teacher hidden behind layers of mythical embellishment.

    • I would almost agree with that, but you assume that “living into their stories” will provide only moral guidance, whereas I’ve found that it provides something much more like a relationship (sometimes fulfilling, but other times difficult!). To be sure, no matter how compelling it can be (as it sometimes is, but certainly not always), such never constitutes proof of the Gospel’s claims about Jesus. But as I’ve said repeatedly, that’s not really the point, or at least it shouldn’t be. It’s not about proof (good luck finding that–could you even “prove” that your wife loves you? How much less could you prove something like the incarnation?); it’s about an invitation to live differently.

  3. The “Trilemma” only makes sense to someone who has already reached certain conclusions about the existence and person of Jesus. Someone probably already living in a Christian culture or milieu. Maybe someone who’s already a Christian. Definitely someone who lives in the world of Lewis’ creation.

    It’s not (and was not meant to be) a piece of self-sufficient syllogism, and it won’t take most non-Christians from zero to true faith.

    • That fits in nicely with Ken’s observation that the Professor already knew that there was a Narnia for Lucy to discover. I still haven’t shaken the idea that Lewis thinks this is a great piece of logic.

      As to the Lunatic option of the Trilemma, I think it presupposes a primitive either/or situation concerning rationality and mental illness that modern cognitive science belies. We now know that individuals can be perfectly rational in most areas of their lives and yet exhibit weird beliefs in one very specific area. For instance, many victims of OCD can live reasonable productive and “normal” lives. Similarly, the ways in which the human mind reacts to and copes with unusual or stressful experiences (the ol’ cognitive dissonance schtick) can lead to surprising conclusions. So even the supposedly exhaustive options provided in his argument are considerably weaker than he would have us believe.

  4. “the Professor making this argument in fact did have other reasons to believe Lucy’s story: He too had been to Narnia. The Professor believed Lucy, not because he was convinced by the “logic” of her case, but because he knew first hand that Narnia was real–he had seen it himself.”

    That personal experience of the Kingdom is quite essential to true faith and developing the kind of life-giving relationship God is calling us into. Not just the Trilemma itself, but the whole of the gospels (especially John’s) are an invitation to do just this. Don’t take my word for it…come and see.

    An interesting critique.

  5. Ken,

    I think you’re confusing the premise with the conclusion.

    If the Professor had sided with the other children and simply took the rational response that Lucy was making it up (e.g. lying or mad) then he’s simply opting for one of the conclusions of the trilemma.

    However much he knows or believes, he opts for the third option – Lucy must be telling the truth. It doesn’t replace the premise of the trilema just because he knows a bit more than the children do.

    Regarding the trilemma in general – I know that you want to continue with the idea of a 4th option eg. it was part myth but aren’t we just shifting the variables?

    The trilemma could easily be applied to the gospel authors themselves (and I mean ALL potential authors) rather than Jesus.

    Let’s entertain the idea that a true account was written of what Jesus said and did, but then later others came along and injected false stories or altered the original. The original author is telling the truth, the later authors are lying.

    Even if you dismiss the whole text as the bible as myth/made-up then you’re dismissing it as a lie.

    It is quite easy to see how the trilemma works when you apply to law.

    When a suspect of a crime is brought before the court, the judge and jury need only establish one of 3 conclusions. Whether he is telling the truth he is innocent, whether he is somehow mentally impaired and so not responsible for his actions, or whether he is lying and he is guilty. There is no fourth option that the crime was a myth or partly happened. If there are false (mythic) parts of someones testimony – this will be found out and decided in the process of the trial.

    Therefore, to say there is a 4th option of myth, is to really say that you haven’t completed enough research or come to a conclusion.

    So when we are discussing evidence, we really only have 3 conclusions. Anyone who wants to make an objective statement about the gospels, must really put the bible itself ‘on trial’.

    Perhaps Lewis’s mistake was to apply the trilemma to Jesus, rather than the gospel texts themselves.

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