Thursday, October 16, 2014

C. S. Lewis and The Trilemma Argument in Mere Christianity

In my previous post I mentioned in passing C. S. Lewis's trilemma argument he makes in Mere Christianity, that Jesus had to be either Lord, liar, or lunatic:

"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. ... 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, Mere Christianity

Lewis is saying that Jesus had to be who he said he was or else he was a liar or he was crazy/out of his mind.

There have been objections to his argument over the years, as Larry brought up in the comments on yesterday's post:

     "...there is at least one obvious alternative to the "daft, devilish, or divine" fork that Lewis describes in Mere Christianity: i.e., that the character of Jesus was fictional in whole or part, and either did not exist, or did not say the things attributed to him, or did not mean by those things what the Gospel writers, or we, think he did. Whether or not this possibility can be answered by convincing arguments, it clearly exists and is relevant. An unbeliever, citing the principle that remarkable claims require remarkable evidence, might reasonably (I think) argue that it is more probable that the complexly historied Gospel texts do not represent Jesus accurately -- texts often do not represent history accurately -- than that the man whom we glimpse through those accounts, which were written by worshipers of that man, was God.
     In short, only someone who views Christ's Gospel utterances as ipsissima verba, or very close to it, can be supposed to face the trilemma at all -- and such a person is already a species of believer. And even this is to put aside the argument's rather simplistic psychiatry, its baked-in claims about what a "lunatic" is or isn't capable of.
     As a Christian, I find the argument startlingly feeble. I'm startled, that is, that a thinker as good as Lewis usually was would have ever wasted his time on it. Do we really believe in the divinity of Christ because we find all the alternatives psychiatrically implausible? This seems an accurate account neither of Christian theological history, nor of any individual believer's personal path that I have heard of or can easily imagine . . .
What think ye?"

So what do I think? Well, I've heard and read these types of objections before. Bart Ehrman and others have suggested a fourth option could be that Jesus was a legend; not that he did not exist, but that the claims of his divinity were made by his followers and not by Jesus himself. I would argue that there are plenty of reasons/evidence in the text to believe Jesus made the claim himself, but I know there are many scholars who would love to disagree. Lewis denied that the Gospels were legends in an essay called, "What Are We to Make of Jesus Christ?":
"Now, as a literary historian, I am perfectly convinced that whatever else the Gospels are they are not legends. I have read a great deal of legend and I am quite clear that they are not the same sort of thing. They are not artistic enough to be legends. From an imaginative point of view they are clumsy, they don’t work up to things properly. Most of the life of Jesus is totally unknown to us, as is the life of anyone else who lived at that time, and no people building up a legend would allow that to be so. " - C. S. Lewis
N. T. Wright, a New Testament scholar I highly respect, also critiqued Lewis's trilemma in an article in Touchstone Magazine, entitled, "Simply Lewis". Wright says the argument "backfires dangerously when historical critics question [Lewis's] reading of the Gospels."

But Peter Kreeft has described the trilemma as "the most important argument in Christian apologetics" (Fundamentals of the Faith: Essays in Christian Apologetics, 59).  The fact that Kreeft still has a higher opinion of it makes me feel better about the fact that I find that I still like it in spite of the arguments I have read against it. I would agree that it may need more nuance, but I don't think it is a worthless argument.

Lewis used the trilemma argument again in The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe when Lucy Pevensie told her siblings she had found a world called Narnia inside a wardrobe, and they ask the Professor what they should do, 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)

Perhaps then, the trilemma should be more of an invitation for the skeptic to consider the claims of the Gospels more closely, to do honest research about the historical Jesus, and see what truth they find when they do.

What are your thoughts on this? Let's continue the discussion in the comments.

In response to the 31 Day blogging challenge, I will be posting every day in October. You can read previous posts HERE. Follow me on Facebook and/or Twitter to be notified of new posts. You can also Subscribe to get posts sent to you by email. (There is a simple form towards the top on the right where you can do this.)

Feel free to comment with your own thoughts and questions!

Index of Posts:
Day 1: 31 Days of C. S. Lewis (Introduction)
Day 2. C. S. Lewis on Longing (In "The Weight of Glory")
Day 3. C. S. Lewis on Sehnsucht (Longing and Desire in The Weight of Glory)
Day 4. C. S. Lewis Audio Recordings
Day 5: C. S. Lewis Online Resources
Day 6: C. S. Lewis: The Intolerable Compliment (The Problem of Pain)
Day 7: C. S. Lewis: What is "The Weight of Glory"?
Day 8: C. S. Lewis: The Great Divorce and The Weight of Glory
Day 9: C. S. Lewis: A Grief Observed
Day 10: C. S. Lewis, Myth, and Postmodernism
Day 11: C. S. Lewis, Myth, and Postmodernism (Part 2)
Day 12: C. S. Lewis and Postmodernism (Part 3 - Conclusion)
Day 13: C. S. Lewis: The Grand Miracle (Myth and Allusions)
Day 14: C. S. Lewis: Is Theology Poetry? (Part 1: More on Myth)
Day 15: C. S. Lewis: Is Theology Poetry? (Part 2: Metaphors, Symbols, and Science)
Day 16: C. S. Lewis and The Trilemma Argument in Mere Christianity

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