Lunatic, Liar, or Lord?: C. S. Lewis’ False Trichotomy

One of C. S. Lewis’ best-known arguments is that, since Jesus claimed to be God, he could not have merely been a great moral teacher, but must either have been a lunatic, a liar, or the Lord. This argument is popularly referred to as “Lewis’ Trilemma,” and can be found in the book Mere Christianity at the end of chapter 3:

“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 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.”

Mere Christianity, 52

At first reading, this line of reasoning might appear to be sound. It is certainly fair to say that if we are to have an opinion on the kind of person Jesus was, we must choose between a series of options, some of which will be mutually exclusive. But has Lewis considered every possible choice?

A Fourth Possibility

I would agree with Richard Dawkins (a professor at Oxford, like Lewis), who argues that there is a fourth possibility in his book, The God Delusion:

“A common argument, attributed among others to C. S. Lewis (who should have known better), states that, since Jesus claimed to be the Son of God, he must have been either right or else insane or a liar: ‘Mad, Bad or God.’ Or, with artless alliteration, ‘Lunatic, Liar, or Lord’. The historical evidence that Jesus claimed any sort of divinity is minimal. But even if that evidence were good, the trilemma on offer would be ludicrously inadequate. A fourth possibility, almost too obvious to need mentioning, is that Jesus was honestly mistaken. Plenty of people are.”

The God Delusion, 117

This is precisely the thought I had when reading Mere Christianity for the first time, and I think it needs to be elaborated. One might accuse Dawkins of a sophistic rewording, for being “honestly mistaken” about whether you are God still makes you a lunatic, does it not? Well, that might depend on your worldview. Before we can classify a first-century itinerant Jewish Rabbi as a ‘lunatic’, we must consider his cultural context. Jesus lived in a time when belief in the supernatural was for the most part taken for granted. He also lived in a time and place where the idea of God being able to manifest himself in bodily form was widely accepted. In the Hebrew Bible, for example, God is said to appear to Abraham as a man who eats food and speaks with Abraham directly (see Genesis 18). In the Greco-Roman milieu in which Jesus lived, human emperors were worshiped as gods and may have even believed themselves to be gods (see Klauck, 250-330). Considering these facts, would it really be fair to say that a person in this context claiming to be God was on par with “the man who says he is a poached egg”? I don’t think so. To be sure, believing oneself to be God would certainly have been out of the ordinary, but it wouldn’t have been as crazy as Lewis tries to imply.

To a certain extent, Lewis’ argument is valid, although it fails to capture some nuance. If Jesus did claim to be God—when in fact he was not—this fact would undoubtedly be a mark against the ‘greatness’ of his teachings. To the extent that Jesus’ teachings hinged upon his divinity, it would be true to say that they were not of great moral value. However, many of Jesus’ teachings are not predicated on the assumption that Jesus was himself God, and therefore to say that Jesus was “a great moral teacher” but not God would not necessarily be contradictory. One only needs to add the specification of which teachings should be thought to have great moral value. It is therefore entirely possible to accept that Jesus said things for moral value without identifying him as a lunatic, a liar, or God almighty.

What If Jesus Never Claimed to Be God At All?

One typical response to Lewis’ trilemma is the argument that the historical Jesus did not actually claim to be God, and therefore Jesus’ alleged claim to divinity requires no explanation. This response is adopted by the New Testament scholar Bart D. Ehrman, who argues that Jesus was not portrayed as claiming to be divine in the earlier Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), but only in the later Gospel of John:

“The problem is that the only Gospel of the New Testament where Jesus makes divine claims about himself is in the Gospel of John. In the three, earlier Gospels you do not find Jesus saying things like ‘I and the Father are One,’ ‘Before Abraham was, I am,’ or ‘If you have seen me, you have seen the Father.’ These sayings are found only in the Fourth Gospel, as are all the other ‘I am’ sayings, in which Jesus identifies himself as the one who has come from heaven to earth for the salvation of all who believe in him.”

What Ehrman is alleging here (i.e., that Jesus’ claim to divinity is a later development not found in the earliest Gospels) is an idea that is accepted among many biblical scholars, although there are some who claim to see traces of Jesus’ divinity in the Synoptics. So while Ehrman is making a valid point that certainly needs to be taken into consideration with regard to Lewis’ trilemma, I tend to prefer Dawkins’ approach for methodological reasons. Remember, Lewis’ trilemma is a response to the idea that Jesus was a great moral teacher but not the divine son of God. This claim to which Lewis is responding seems to presuppose a conflation between Jesus as portrayed in the New Testament and the historical Jesus—for in order to say that Jesus was a great moral teacher one must first suppose that Jesus’ teachings are what we find in the Gospels. Furthermore, I think Dawkins’ argument is more persuasive because it grants the Christians’ presuppositions and therefore circumvents the complicated scholarship on how one can reconstruct the historical Jesus. By granting the portrait of Jesus found in John’s Gospel, yet still showing that Lewis has created a false trichotomy, one can more effectively persuade Christians of the limitations of Lewis’ trilemma.

Conclusion

Now, it could be argued that by criticizing C. S. Lewis I am aiming for the low-hanging fruit of lay Christian philosophy, and thus knocking down weak versions of Christian theism. Lewis, after all, was Medievalist by profession and is not generally counted among the great philosophers of religion. As Bart Ehrman recounts: “I was completely bewildered and puzzled when, at Princeton Theological Seminary, my philosophy professor dismissed Lewis as a complete amateur. But now I understand. When it comes to philosophy and theology, he really was an amateur. That doesn’t mean he wasn’t smart and extraordinarily clever. But he was not a master of every field he wrote… in addition to not being a philosopher or theologian by training, Lewis was also not a biblical scholar.”

With that said, I will continue to read and interact with Lewis’ work on this blog, because Lewis is a very intelligent and influential thinker. Of course, I will also continue—as I have done in previous posts—to address arguments made by the most respected Christian philosophers and biblical scholars (such as Alvin Plantinga, Michael Heiser, etc.), because I am ultimately interested in considering the best arguments on any side of a debate, as one should be. But historically influential thinkers like C. S. Lewis have developed/popularized arguments that are widely accepted and repeated by theists to this day, and as with Lewis’ trilemma, many such arguments can and should be critically analyzed and ultimately rejected.

Photo credit: iStock.com/rudall30

Bibliography

Dawkins, Richard. The God Delusion (Mariner Books, 2008).

Ehrman, Bart D. (2013) “Liar Lunatic or Lord….. Is Jesus a Moral Teacher?” The Bart Ehrman Blog.

Klauck, Hans-Josef. The Religious Context of Early Christianity – A Guide to Graeco-Roman Religions translated by Brian McNeil (Fortress Press, 2003).

Lewis, C. S. Mere Christianity (HarperOne, 1952/2001).

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