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.)


  1. Another point that can be made is that Jesus' beliefs and practices were consistent with the worldview of time. That rules out the liar and lunatic premise when compared with the same statements made from a person with a modern worldview.

  2. you're an idiot

  3. At which point in my argument did I lose you?

  4. You're too smart for me. Considering everything you just said, I have one simple question.... who was Jesus then?

  5. There are several possibilities, and the correct answer has probably been lost to history.

    My best guess is that Jesus was a false prophet. He preached about how the kingdom of God was coming and would right all injustice. Instead, he was crucified. Not understanding why, he cried out "My God, why have you forsaken me?" There was no why because there never was a God leading Jesus. Instead of wrongs being righted, Jerusalem was destroyed.

    While trying to cope with the tragedy, his followers were in an extremely suggestible state looking for something, anything, to soften the blow.

    Looking at all the weird beliefs in ghosts and physics that manage to survive in the modern world, it's comparatively unsurprising that the disciples convinced themselves of the Resurrection.

    Did Jesus actually claim to be God? I don't know, but I'd guess no. He might have been a little crazy - cult founders usually are. Or he might have been a perfectly sane moral teacher and a charismatic idealist who came to be thought of as God after his death.