Sunday, November 30, 2008

C. S. Lewis' Trilemma

“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 the 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.

We are faced, then, with a frightening alternative. This man we are talking about either was (and is) just what He said or else a lunatic, or something worse. Now it seems to me obvious that He was neither a lunatic nor a fiend: and consequently, however strange or terrifying or unlikely it may seem, I have to accept the view that He was and is God.” – C. S. Lewis in Mere Christianity, page 52-53

The Trilemma is perhaps C. S. Lewis' most famous argument. Jesus claimed to be God. Either these claims were true or they weren't. If they weren't, either Jesus knew they were false or he didn't. If he didn't know, he was a lunatic. If he did know, he was a liar, and a fiend because of it. The only remaining possibility is that what he said was true. Therefore, Jesus is Lord.

I will show that this argument fails on four different lines, any of which is sufficient to refute the argument.

Problem 1: Biblical reliability

Like virtually all skeptics, I do not trust the historical reliability of the Gospels enough to believe that Jesus said all the things attributed to him in the Gospels. The Trilemma doesn't even get off the ground when facing the position that the words of the biblical Jesus are not always those of the historical Jesus.

However, the Trilemma argument is not designed to get past this problem, so while it is a valid reason to not be persuaded, it is off the topic of direct criticism of Lewis' argument. I will leave this argument to future posts and from here on grant the assumption that Jesus said everything that the Gospels say he said.

Problem 2: Jesus was not a great moral teacher

What's wrong with the possibility that Jesus was a lunatic or fiend? Many people in history have been liars and many have been fools. Why not Jesus? What's wrong is that Jesus was a good teacher, and thus the lunacy and liar options are implausible. Lewis plays off this assumption rhetorically with “You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon...” so that one's moral outrage is raised by such insulting statements being leveled at such a good teacher.

I disagree with generalizations about Jesus being a good teacher. At the last supper, Jesus had a chance to save millions of lives killed in his name by just clarifying whether or not the bread and wine were literally his body, or just a metaphor. Jesus did a terrible job explaining that salvation was through faith in him and not through selling your possessions and giving to the poor. Jesus spoke in parables so that people would not understand – if that's not poor teaching, I don't know what is.

Jesus spoke as though adultery of the heart is as bad as actual adultery. So why not treat them as equivalent in practice? As long as one is guilty of the former, why not go ahead and make oneself guilty of the latter? Applying the same approach to charity as to sin, should we not admire the ethics of a person who thinks long and hard about giving to the poor and then doesn't?

Also, Jesus' message is tarnished a bit by not coming to unite, but to divide. He wanted people to abandon their families in following him. He told the disciples to sell their cloaks and buy swords, and then scolded Peter for using his sword at the opportune time. Coming from the side of faith, these can be explained away. But Lewis is talking to skeptics, and these explanations fall flat when the goodness of Jesus as teacher is still in question, rather than when looking back and rationalizing as believers do.

Finally, even if Jesus' teachings were good, this wouldn't make him a good teacher in the sense that Lewis needs him to be for the Trilemma. A statement about the goodness of Jesus' teachings does not necessarily translate into a statement about the goodness of Jesus himself. I look at many of Jesus' sayings and acknowledge their wisdom because they appear wise to me, and not because I recognize the legitimacy of Jesus' words for the mere reason that they came from Jesus. Only claims about Jesus the person take away from the plausibility of the liar and lunatic options. The goodness of many of Jesus' teachings is not a claim about Jesus the person.

Problem 3: Lunacy is an open option

By “lunacy,” I merely mean the possibility that Jesus wasn't more than a man, but honestly thought himself to be – a clinically diagnosable disorder is not needed to fit under the second option of the Trilemma. Lewis dresses up this possibility with a great deal of rhetoric by claiming that this would be “on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg.” I disagree. I think that to be as superstitious as the common people in the first century already borders on lunacy by modern standards.

After Paul performs a miracle in Acts 14, the crowd becomes convinced that he's a god come down in human form – despite Paul's protestations that he's not a god. And then some Jews are able to get the crowd to turn on Paul and stone him. Whether or not Paul performed a miracle is not the question here – what is clear is that first century people were either able to be convinced that a man was a god on the basis of no evidence, or were able to be dissuaded of the evidence of a miracle by means of no evidence. In a culture like this, how crazy would someone have to be to think that They were a god? This is less crazy than a person in modern times believing they are the reincarnation of Elvis. Delusional, yes, but they may actually be a talented musician capable of getting a job and living a life outside a mental hospital. Due to his time and place of birth, to fit under the “lunacy” option, Jesus did not have to be nearly crazy enough to warrant a lunatic label.

Next, Jesus' words and actions are consistent with someone who is a little crazy. He wandered around the countryside preaching. He got angry at a fig tree for not having any figs, and so he cursed it. He didn't give straight answers, but spoke in parables [in the synoptics, at least] so that the people would hear but not believe. He seems to have said the stars would fall from the sky before this generation passes away. Also, do not his mere claims to be God and have the power to forgive sins further support the lunacy theory? Why must we think Jesus to have been sufficiently sane to know he wasn't God?

And finally, perhaps Jesus was a perfectly sane moral teacher when he conducted his memorable moral teaching. Only later did he grow to believe the hype about himself and turn into a lunatic.

To argue that Jesus could not have been mistaken about his identity seems to require some sort of appeal to his miracles or Resurrection. Unfortunately for Lewis, he is not arguing from the Resurrection, but still trying to argue toward the Resurrection, so this line of reasoning is not available to him.

Problem 4: Jesus didn't say who he was

According to Christian theology, Jesus was fully man and fully God. He got his body through embryonic development inside Mary, even though he has always existed. He existed in certain physical locations, although as God he was everywhere at once. He needed food although God needs nothing. He had to grow in wisdom, because he was born lacking wisdom even though as God he was omniscient. Jesus was part of the Trinity, an entity which is one in essence. He prayed to himself in the Garden. The next day he asked himself why he had forsaken himself – I don't ask “why” so much as “how.” Three (meaning two) days later he was somehow able to raise himself from the dead, even though he was dead. These ideas just don't go together all that well. At this point, I'm not addressing the question of if there is any way to justify calling these “apparently” contradictory rather than actually contradictory. I'm suggesting that the incoherence of who he supposedly was increases the level of clarity needed in Jesus' words to justify talk of who Jesus said he was.

The closest he comes to explaining his identity is in John 10: “I and the Father are one ... the Father is in me, and I in the Father.” This can reasonably be taken to mean that he is God in some sense, and separate in some sense. However, Jesus never even approaches the subject of being fully God and fully man or what this would even mean. How is the Christian answer accepting that Jesus is “just what He said?”

Looking at Matthew, Mark, and Luke, and leaving out the last Gospel written, it's not even clear that Jesus thinks he is God. He certainly thinks himself to be the Messiah, but there are lots of possibilities between mere mortal and God himself. For instance, he could be the Son of God who was delegated the power to forgive sins without a Trinity to make the Son of God equal to God. The differences between the Synoptics' Jesus and John's Jesus is the subject for another post, but for now note that John is needed to defend the claim that Jesus claimed to be God, so claiming that Jesus thought he was God is not based off the testimony of the four Gospels, but based on John's Gospel alone.

Suppose someone accepts that John is a reliable source of what Jesus said, the implausibility of the lunatic/liar descriptions of Jesus, and that we should thus take seriously who Jesus said he was. The lack of a clear statement by Jesus describing himself as both God and man and the incoherence of all the different things he is supposed to have been should point back to the conclusion that we are confused about what he meant. He also called himself a door, bread, and a vine, but that doesn't mean he was lying, insane, or any of these things literally speaking. Throughout the Gospels, Jesus gets frustrated with the disciples for misunderstand what he is saying. Even if the Gospels were written by disciples, we should not uncritically accept the disciples' understanding of what Jesus was talking about.

No matter how far-fetched one thinks the lunacy or liar theories are, they merely need to compete with believing someone whose self-description appears contradictory, who offers no reconciliation of the contradiction, and who never even recognizes that this part of his message and identity is so confusing that it must merely be accepted as a “mystery.”


We have had millions of crazy people and liars throughout history, and at most one God-man. Thus, before considering the evidence, the lunacy and liar theories are millions of times more plausible than the Lord theory. The fact that Jesus founded a religious movement only gets this number down in the thousands or hundreds.

For the Trilemma argument to work, what is needed is reliable Gospel accounts, reason to accept Jesus as at least a good teacher, reason to exclude the lunacy option, and a clear statement from Jesus concerning what he was. All four hurdles must be overcome with a level of certainty sufficient to overcome the fact that the lunacy option starts out vastly more plausible than the possibility that Jesus is “just what He said.” I am neither convinced nor impressed by Lewis' most famous argument.

(Kudos to C. S. Lewis and the Search for Rational Religion by John Beversluis. This book provided the basic idea of at least half my arguments.)

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Paul's Conversion Story Grows

Story 1

This first version is presumably based on a story Paul told Luke.

Acts 9:3-7 “As he was traveling, it happened that he was approaching Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him; and he fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, 'Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?' And he said, 'Who are You, Lord?' And He said, 'I am Jesus whom you are persecuting, but get up and enter the city, and it will be told you what you must do.' The men who traveled with him stood speechless, hearing the voice but seeing no one.”

The men with him hear a voice, but see no light and remain standing.

Story 2

The second version is probably Luke's eyewitness account of what Paul said while in the temple.

Acts 22:6-9 “But it happened that as I was on my way, approaching Damascus about noontime, a very bright light suddenly flashed from heaven all around me, and I fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to me, 'Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?' And I answered, 'Who are You, Lord?' And He said to me, 'I am Jesus the Nazarene, whom you are persecuting.' And those who were with me saw the light, to be sure, but did not understand the voice of the One who was speaking to me.”

The men with him hear a voice and see the light. It is implied that they are not knocked to the ground.

Story 3

The third version is probably Luke's eyewitness account of Paul's testimony before King Agrippa.

Acts 26:13-14 “At midday, O King, I saw on the way a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, shining all around me and those who were journeying with me. And when we had all fallen to the ground, I heard a voice saying to me in the Hebrew dialect, 'Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads.'”

This time, the men with him are knocked to the ground. It is implied that his friends see the light and hear the voice.

If someone is in a group when they see/hear something noteworthy or miraculous, a really important first question to ask the witnesses is what everyone else saw/heard. It might be the case that it was real yet only one person saw it, but this is a pretty crucial detail. Whether intentional or not, this shows that Paul sometimes stretches the facts when trying to convince someone Christianity is real. This is worth keeping in mind when reading his list of Jesus-sightings in I Corinthians 15, or reading about the “third heaven” in II Corinthians 12.

What did the Voice say?

In the first version, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me? ... I am Jesus whom you are persecuting, but get up and enter the city, and it will be told you what you must do.”

The second version is essentially the same, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?' ... I am Jesus the Nazarene, whom you are persecuting. ... Get up and go on into Damascus, and there you will be told of all that has been appointed for you to do.”

But in the third version, the voice says, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads. ... I am Jesus whom you are persecuting. But get up and stand on your feet; for this purpose I have appeared to you, to appoint you a minister and a witness not only to the things which you have seen, but also to the things in which I will appear to you; rescuing you from the Jewish people and from the Gentiles, to whom I am sending you, to open their eyes so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the dominion of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and an inheritance among those who have been sanctified by faith in Me.”

Due to paraphrasing, maybe Paul just left these details out at first. But based on the information available to me, it looks like Paul was told far, far less on the road to Damascus than he reported the voice as saying while before Felix.

Story 0, aka, Guessing at the Truth

How big of a story would it have taken for Paul to come up with the Acts 9 account? Maybe he looked at the sun, had a heat-stroke, and a nightmare about Jesus that he took a little too seriously. Of course, this is just a guess.

However, what must be recognized is that our only source of what actually happened to Paul is in Acts 9 and presumably based on the testimony of Paul. And in two instances appearing in Acts, Paul exaggerates the story. This should profoundly influence the degree to which his first story is believed.

Friday, November 7, 2008

The Hermeneutics of Paul: Seed and Seeds

Galatians 3:15-16 “Brethren, I speak in terms of human relations: even though it is only a man's covenant, yet when it has been ratified, no one sets it aside or adds conditions to it. Now the promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed He does not say, 'And to seeds,' as referring to many, but rather to one, 'And to your seed,' that is, Christ.”

Paul opens the section by highlighting just how important it is to take a covenant with God seriously. He takes it so seriously that he is willing to base an argument on a precise grammatical point, namely the singularity of the word “seed.” And at a glance, the Holy Spirit is quite clever at foreshadowing. The author of Genesis somehow knew to use the singular of 'seed' so that people would one day realize that all nations will be blessed not through the Jews as a group, but through Jesus in particular.

With this in mind, it's quite deflating to look back at what Genesis says. Paul is not clearly referring to any one particular verse, so a broad view will be necessary. In most of the relevant places in Genesis, the phrase is translated in the NASB as “Abraham's descendants.” In Hebrew or other English translations, the clash isn't quite so strong. In Hebrew, the same word would have been used regardless of whether singular or plural is intended – context must be used to determine if it is singular or plural, just like the English phrases “Abraham's offspring” or “Abraham's seed.” The NASB translators thought it was plural, as would any reasonable person reading God's promise to Abraham in context. Some of the particular verses I'm referring to are:

Genesis 12:7 “The LORD appeared to Abram and said 'To your descendants I will give this land' So he built an altar there to the LORD who had appeared to him.”

Genesis 13:15-16 “for all the land which you see, I will give it to you and to your descendants forever. I will make your descendants as the dust of the earth, so that if anyone can number the dust of the earth, then your descendants can also be numbered.”

Genesis 15:5 “And He took him outside and said, 'Now look toward the heavens, and count the stars, if you are able to count them' And He said to him, 'So shall your descendants be.'”

Genesis 15:13 “God said to Abram, "Know for certain that your descendants will be strangers in a land that is not theirs, where they will be enslaved and oppressed four hundred years.”

Genesis 17:5-7 “No longer shall your name be called Abram, But your name shall be Abraham; For I have made you the father of a multitude of nations. I will make you exceedingly fruitful, and I will make nations of you, and kings will come forth from you. I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your descendants after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your descendants after you.”

The contexts of “descendant” are being given land, as the dust of the earth, as the stars of heaven, enslaved for four hundred years, and multitude of nations throughout generations. This is my case for Genesis' seed being plural – I challenge those who disagree to find a verse to support the singularity of Genesis' seed.

As far as I can tell, this is completely fatal to the more conservative definitions of biblical inerrancy. Paul starts by instructing us to take the covenant seriously. He then bases an entire theological argument off a grammatical point, when the grammatical point is demonstrably false using purely biblical evidence. If this isn't an incorrect statement, just how wrong must a statement be before being considered actually wrong? The problem isn't that Abraham's promise was plural and Christ is singular – analogies are flexible things. The problem is that Paul said the promise is singular and it's not.

Premise 1. In Genesis, seed is plural.
Premise 2. Paul says that seed in Genesis is singular and not plural.
Premise 3. Singular is not plural.
Therefore, Paul was wrong.

I don't see how you can get much purer of a syllogism than this. However, much can be said in defense of more moderate views of inspiration, or at least, the competency of Paul.

My first impression after looking back at Genesis was to think Paul was a complete hack who barely knew the story of Abraham or at least didn't bother to read it again while composing his letter. But this opposite side of a pendulum swing is as poorly supported by the text as the view of full inerrancy.

Galatians 3:29 “And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham's descendants, heirs according to promise.” Here, Paul refers to the exact same promise within the exact same chapter, and this time lets “seeds” be plural to refer to the entire church! If 3:16 was a sly maneuver, he wouldn't have highlighted it by using the word “seeds” again. It couldn't have been an honest mistake due to ignorance or forgetfulness of Genesis, because he expresses his knowledge of the plurality of seeds. Whatever, Paul was doing, it looks like it was intentional and that he wanted his readers to see what he did. This is consistent with neither being a mistake nor deception.

Apparently, this kind of thing was kosher back then, or so the apologetic defense goes. The fact that the same word is used for plural and singular invited a sort of grammatical flexibility, even when the entire context shows that the grammar was not actually flexible when read by modern minds (i.e. people trying to figure out what it actually says.) Peter Enns makes a strong case for this in Inspiration and Incarnation using extra-biblical texts to support the claim that Paul's hermeneutics would have been seen as acceptable in the first century. Thus, if an orthodox Jew read this in the first century and was unconvinced, he would not call foul over Paul's grammar, but would argue against the conclusion along different lines. So viewing Galatians as its original audience would have viewed it, Paul did not make a mistake. And if you believe Paul was inspired, and the central message of the Bible is Christ, you have reason to trust his conclusions even while expressing skepticism of how he gets there.

After this point, evangelical scholars and I diverge. The irony of reading Galatians as its original audience would is that to do so requires the understanding that Paul did not read Genesis as its original audience would. That's just fine for a scholar studying a secular document, but it's quite problematic for maintaining a level of biblical trustworthiness. All biblical interpretation, and hence essentially all Christian doctrines, rest on how the Bible is to be read. The Bible doesn't tell its readers to begin the interpretation process by reading it as its original audience would – evangelicals only do so because it is so transparently obvious that when reading a book you should try to determine what the author meant.

Paul's hermeneutics undercut this assumption underlying all biblical interpretation.

If it's obvious that Christians should seek to know what the original biblical authors meant, then it's obvious that Paul's approach was wrong. If it's not obvious, then the Bible has become so relativized that it's difficult to use as a guide to anything. This would imply the consistency of “Isaiah didn't mean X” and “from Isaiah we know X is true.”

The more serious problem is that when Paul is given so much latitude, it's hard to not justify giving the same latitude to other people. (There is a grain of reality in the coming comparison. But please note that it's meant to be an analogy, not an accurate depiction of the contents of the Koran, Islam, or the seventh century. A religious studies scholar could probably find a real example – I'm making one up.) The “Koran” argues that John 14:16's predictions of sending “another Comforter” means Muhammad. Thus, the Bible foretold the coming of Muhammad. Christians reply that's not what Jesus was talking about – Jesus was talking about the Holy Spirit, as evidenced by the other things Jesus said about the Helper that are not consistent with the Helper being Muhammad. Muslims then recognizes that to argue Jesus was talking about Muhammad is grammatically indefensible through looking at John alone. However, this is what people in the seventh century really thought about John. It was common practice for people in the seventh century to take a series of vague prophecies and accept the pieces that fit while discarding the one's that didn't. The Muslim recognizes the weakness of such reasoning in the “Koran” when viewed by twenty-first century eyes, but you have to look at it in the context of its culture, when that would have been acceptable reasoning. Also, the “Koran” is inspired by Allah, so that means the conclusions are still true.

The Christian response would not be to check out if that's how they really thought in the seventh century. The Christian response would be that if the words in John don't predict Muhammad now, and the words of John didn't predict Muhammad in the first century, then the words in John didn't predict Muhammad in the seventh century either. The argument puts Christians in the exact same situation with respect to Islam that Jews are in now with respect to Christianity. Christians ask Jews to believe that Christianity is the correct strain of Judaism when the Bible clearly uses the Jewish Scriptures to say things that they don't really say when read in context. The Muslim is asking to Christian to believe Islam is the true strain of Christianity based on readings of Christians' Scriptures which make it say things that it clearly doesn't say when read in context. To reject the Muslim's argument and accept Paul's argument is a double standard.

It's possible to rationally believe without seeing the work of God in some of the following: the writing of the Bible, the influence of the Bible, the person of Jesus, evidence for the Resurrection, fulfilled prophecy, creation/science, the power of prayer, the testimony of the church, personal religious experiences, etc. But to believe without seeing the work of God in any of these is highly determined ignorance. Galatians 3 goes a long way toward removing the work of God in writing the Bible from the list of possible places to find a reason to believe and placing it on the list of reasons to disbelieve.