C.S. Lewis' Trilemma is Naive and Unhelpful
Last week I encountered several people who claimed that "either the Bible is literal and completely accurate or it can't be trusted and is full of lies."
In the days that followed, I couldn't help but think of C.S. Lewis' classic "Lunatic, Liar, or Lord" trilemma. Lewis basically claimed that Jesus is either a lunatic, a liar, or Lord (i.e. God). He said you can't believe that Jesus was merely a great human teacher or something of the like.
I've always rolled my eyes at Lewis' trilemma and similar statements, and I tweeted this week about how unhelpful I think it is. Several people wanted me to unpack this a little further, so I've written some expanded thoughts.
The trilemma is unhelpful in a lot of ways, but I want to focus on just three of it's problems:
1) It doesn’t account for the origins and development of the gospel writings.
Lewis’ argument only functions if you assume that the picture of Jesus we see within the gospel writings is, in fact, a completely accurate and realistic picture of him.
I suspect that when apologists use the trilemma, they’re hoping to avoid the very real possibility that the historical Jesus isn’t exactly the same as the New Testament character named Jesus.
What do I mean by this? I mean that it’s possible to write about someone’s life years after their death and intentionally or unintentionally misinterpret their life or reframe it in such a way as to assist your particular religious or political agenda.
For instance, what if the Jesus we see within the gospel writings is in fact an embellished or somewhat conflated memory/retelling of his life that slowly developed in the years after his death amongst his followers and supporters?
I’m not saying that this is actually what happened, but it’s a very real possibility that‘s impossible to disprove.
Using the trilemma allows the apologist to avoid a giant hurdle, forcing the audience to assume that the picture of Jesus we see in the NT is a one-to-one conversion of the real Jesus. The thing behind the thing.
In short, a misrepresentation of Jesus written years after his death would not mean the historical Jesus really was a liar or, in Lewis’ words, a lunatic.
2) It forces the audience into a false trichotomy.
One of my professors in college was fond of telling us that if someone asked us if we wanted chocolate or vanilla ice cream, we didn’t have to choose between the two options. We could choose both. Chocolate AND vanilla. Additionally, there are many other flavors of ice cream we could potentially obtain if we were so inclined.
My professor brought this metaphor up on a regular basis because he wanted us to remember that when people present us with a list of choices, we shouldn’t assume that the list contains all of the possible options.
In the case of Lewis’ trilemma, we should not assume that the three options we’re presented with are all of the actual options that exist.
Apologists love to erase options and present people with a carefully curated list that fits within their agenda. It allows the apologist to control the argument and more easily win a discussion. If an apologist can force you to play a particular game (a game they designed and controlled), then you’re almost always going to lose.
It’s better to recognize what’s going on and tell the apologist that you’re not going to play their rigged game.
Lewis’ trilemma is a false trichotomy. It insists that there are only three options without actually backing this claim up.
In the preceding section of this blog, I have already introduced a fourth option, and, in the proceeding section, I will present a fifth option.
3) It assumes that Jesus really did claim to be God.
Lewis’ trilemma is explained in his book Mere Christianity. The explanation can be found in the section about the divinity of Jesus. Here is the section in question:
“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 patronizing 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.”
It’s a cute little paragraph, but its based off of some big assumptions that are conveniently left unaddressed. Primarily, it assumes that Jesus actually claimed to be God. Unfortunately for Lewis and his apologist supporters, this topic is up for debate.
Even NT Wright, a famous and highly respected Christian scholar who falls on the conservative side of the theological spectrum, saw how weak Lewis’ argument was and challenged Lewis' assumptions on this topic:
“But of course the real problem [with Mere Christianity] is the argument for Jesus’ divinity. And this problem actually begins further back: There is virtually no mention, and certainly no treatment, of Israel and the Old Testament, and consequently no attempt to place Jesus in his historical or theological context. (One of the “Screwtape Letters” contains a scornful denunciation of all such attempts, and lays Lewis wide open to the charge of ignoring the historical context of the writings he is using—a charge that, in his own professional field, he would have regarded as serious.)
I am well aware that some in our day, too, see the historical context of Jesus as part of what you teach Christians later on rather than part of how you explain the gospel to outsiders. I think this is simply mistaken. Every step towards a de-Judaized Jesus is a step away from Scripture, away from Christian wisdom, and out into the world of . . . yes, Plato and the rest, which is of course where Lewis partly lived. If you don’t put Jesus in his proper context, you will inevitably put him in a different one, where he, his message, and his achievement will be considerably distorted.
This deficit shows particularly in Lewis’s treatment of incarnation. Famously, as in his well-known slogan, “Liar, Lunatic or Lord,” he argued that Jesus must have been bad or mad or God. This argument has worn well in some circles and extremely badly in others, and the others were not merely being cynical.
What Lewis totally failed to see—as have, of course, many scholars in the field—was that Judaism already had a strong incarnational principle, namely the Temple, and that the language used of Shekinah, Torah, Wisdom, Word, and Spirit in the Old Testament—the language, in other words, upon which the earliest Christians drew when they were exploring and expounding what we have called Christology—was a language designed, long before Jesus’ day, to explain how the one true God could be both transcendent over the world and living and active within it, particularly within Israel.
Lewis, at best, drastically short-circuits the argument. When Jesus says, “Your sins are forgiven,” he is not claiming straightforwardly to be God, but to give people, out on the street, what they would normally get by going to the Temple.”
So, Lewis’ trilemma isn’t helpful because it is a manipulation tool used by apologists to “win” arguments and erase valid concerns.
It trivializes the claim that Jesus is divine, and it strips Jesus from historical and cultural contexts.
People who use it are acting foolish and naive.