C.S. Lewis's Forced Trilemma

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        I have utmost respect for C.S. Lewis and his writings; I want that to be known. Anyone who has read much of my writing would surely be able to vouch for that. I find myself in a similar quandary Lewis himself once expressed in reference to a thesis he believed to be a “disastrous error”; he said, “this is not because I think myself a fit antagonist for so great a genius”. [1]

I do however, have certain difficulties with a couple elements in his logic and philosophy as not being entirely accurate. The difficultly that I am speaking of at the moment is Lewis’s argument in his prominent BBC broadcasts which evolved into Mere Christianity. There he puts forth a trilemma as to Jesus' identity: liar, lunatic, or Lord (mad, bad or God). In this device Lewis’s assertion is that Jesus could not merely be a “nice” or good and moral teacher”. He makes his proposal as if these are the only suitable descriptions offered to us by the scriptures. While certain elements to the proposal I agree with wholeheartedly, there are several thematic elements left unresolved, or negated altogether in his examination. Lewis (and more recently Josh MacDowell) famously put forth this argument for the masses when considering Jesus’ identity. This argument claims that these are our only options when trying to understand Jesus: He was either Lord (God),[2] a liar who claimed he was Lord (God) when he didn’t even know it, or a lunatic who thought he was Lord (God) when he wasn’t anything more than a “mere man”.[3] However, this is an extremely shallow and fallacious argument. This argument excludes other possibilities regarding Jesus’ identity to the extent of silencing Jesus’ own claims and that of his Apostles!

To the least experienced student of scripture it is obvious that Jesus is not mad (lunatic) or bad (liar). The only logical and coherent conclusion Lewis leaves us is one alternative, Lord or God-ship. Basically, if you don’t believe Jesus is God, you must be ignorant and stupid, is this actually correct? Is a false trichotomy really the best way to persuade people to “be Christian”?

If the three choices stated above are the only ones offered by the scriptures, (or if that summary encapsulates the entirety of who-what the messianic figure entails) why then when asked, “who do people say that I am”, did Peter reply to Jesus’ inquiry that he was the Mashiach (messiah, christ, anointed, chosen one, of whom the prophets spoke), “the son of the living God” (Matt. 16, Mark 8)? A close examination does not allow for this category of “lordship” or God-ship, as proposed. “Lord-ship” nor God-ship were necessarily inherited by, nor synonymous to “sonship”[4], as the Messiah was later stated as being “made both lord and messiah” (Acts 2). There is not another writer in the NT that reflects on Jesus' Lord-ship as much as Paul. In his ten letters, he uses the word “lord” in relation to Jesus about 230 times and contrastingly uses “son (of God)” merely 17 times. There is no doubt that in Pauline Christology Jesus as Lord is a dominant theme. Being a son of God in the literal sense of not having an earthly father was not somehow intrinsically linked to his being the “messiah”. It would require redefining what “messiah” actually means. This was certainly not the case for Solomon (2 Sam. 7, 1 Chron. 17 and 28), as well as other examples found in the scriptures. For Paul, God is the Father, and Jesus is “the lord”, “there is absolutely only one God. Indeed, there are many so-called gods—whether in the sky or on the earth. Even as there are many gods and many lords around, but for us there is only one God. He is the father from whom everything originated…there is one lord, Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 8:4-6).

 Declaration of Jesus’ “sonship” is the reason the rabbinic “string of pearls” is used by the Father Himself when quoting from all three sections (Torah, Writings, and Prophets) of the Tanakh (Old Testament), in a pronouncement of the Messiah, “This is my Son, whom I love; I am well pleased with him, Listen to [hear] him” (Matt. 17, Mk. 9, Luke 9, 2 Pet. 1,  from Ps 2:7, Gen 22:2, Deut 18:15 and Is 42:1). If you accept his God-appointed position of “messiah”, then naturally his “lordship” (not God-ship) is automatic.[5] He is Lord because he is chosen (anointed), not chosen (anointed) because he is Lord. Lordship is a byproduct of being the “chosen one” (anointed one, the christ, messiah), not the other way around. There is no aspect of “divine” quality on these premises alone. For this specific reason, “kingdom” language is used, for it belongs with “lordship”. Lewis himself knew very well that the title, or word “god” (theos Gr.) was a very broad and generic one, as is “lord” (kurios Gr.).

Sirs[6], what must I do to be saved,” asked the Philippian jailer to Paul and Silas. The response, “believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved” (Acts 16:30f). James Dunn writes, “[Paul] uses the formula, ‘the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ’. The striking feature is that Paul speaks of God not simply as the God of Christ, but as ‘the God…of our Lord Jesus Christ’. Even as Lord, Jesus acknowledges God not only as his Father but also as his God. Here it becomes plain that the kyrios title is not so much a way of identifying Jesus with God, as a way of distinguishing Jesus from God.”[7] I bring this up due to the perpetuation of the false notion that the surrogation of the Divine Name when writing kurios proves that its use applied to Jesus identifies him with the tetragrammaton.[8] Paul said in Romans (10:9), “If you confess with your mouth, Lord [kurios] Jesus, and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”

The New Testament writers quote from Psalm 8, which is reminiscent of Genesis when God gives Adam (mankind) the care of His handiwork: “...you had him rule what your hands made, you put everything under his feet.” This passage (when quoted) must be read in context to what the writer of Psalms is saying. The NT writers quote this as a Messianic tie to Jesus (second Adam) in 1 Cor. 15, Eph. 1, Phil 2 and Heb. 2.[9] Also in 1 Cor. 15, Paul says, “Now when everything has been subjected to the son, then he will subject himself to God, who subjected everything to him; so that God may be everything in everyone.” This flows in uniformity with the prophecy concerning the “coming kingdom” of Zech. 14, and the unity (oneness of objectives, purpose and of spirit) of God, Messiah and disciples (followers) found in John chapters 14-18.

The sad reality is that the majority of Christendom has been taught they must believe Jesus is God[10] in order to be “saved”. This dictum has absolutely no scriptural authority behind it, but rather hundreds of years of Orthodox debate. It wasn’t until the formation of the Athanasian Creed[11] that Christianity as a whole began to profess the belief in Jesus as God to be a soteriological prerequisite.[12] So strong is this influence within Christianity that to reject it as authoritative bequeaths a subsequent banner of anathema upon all who do.

There are various Christian apologists that have continued using this trilemma throughout the years as perhaps “the most important argument in Christian apologetics”[13] in an ahistorical attempt to portray it as the only viable argument by which to view Jesus’ words. There are other reasons some have denied the philosophy behind Lewis’s claim. For instance, the device only works if one accepts the authority and authenticity of the original documents in relation to Jesus. With the rise of Textual Criticism and questioning of sources, this has led to a much needed reevaluation of Jesus, his words and their origin. More reasons could be given for which theologians and scholars have expressed similar qualms with this unsound and illogical argument.

When first introduced to the trilemma in Art Lindsley’s Case for Christ[14], I hadn’t at the time considered all the implications of what was being communicated until I examined Mere Christianity. It was not until after I had written of my disagreement with Lewis’s proposition that I started encountering numerous theologians and authors who were also finding and had found difficulty with this argument. Of course, most had disagreed with him long before I was born. Here are some examples:

The Anglican bishop of Woolwich J.A.T. Robinson wrote, “Here was more than just a man: here was a window into God at work. For ‘God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself’.[15] The essential difference comes out in the matter of Jesus’ claims. We are often asked to accept Christ as divine because he claimed to be so -  and the familiar argument is pressed: ‘A man who goes around claiming to be God must either be God – or else he is a madman or a charlatan (aut deus aut maus homo)’. [16] And, of course, it is not easy to read the Gospel story and to dismiss Jesus as either mad or bad. Therefore, the conclusion runs, he must be God. But I am not happy about this argument. None of the disciples acknowledged Jesus because he claimed to be God, and the Apostles never went out saying, ‘This man claimed to be God, therefore you must believe in him’. In fact, Jesus himself said in so many words, ‘If I claim anything for myself, do not believe me’. It is, indeed, an open question whether Jesus ever claimed to be the Son of God, let alone God.[17] He may have acknowledged it from the lips of others – but on his own he preferred ‘the Son of Man’.”[18]

NT scholar N.T. Wright stated, “The stock answer from within the conservative Christianity which had nurtured me through my teens came from C.S. Lewis: Jesus was either mad, or bad, or he was ‘who he claimed to be.’ Yes, we said, for anyone else to say such things would be either certifiably insane or at least wicked; but, since it was true in Jesus’ case, it was neither. There is a sense in which I still believe this, but it is a heavily revised sense and must be struggled for, not lightly won. There are no short-circuited arguments in the kingdom of God.”[19] Wright also said in an article for Touchstone Magazine, “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… Lewis, at best, drastically short-circuits the argument…Lewis’s overconfident argument…doesn’t work as history, and it backfires dangerously when historical critics question his reading of the Gospels.”[20]

James Dunn stated in relation to the trilemma, “…scholars have almost always found themselves pushed to the conclusion that John's Gospel reflects much more the early churches' understanding of Jesus than of Jesus own self-understanding...Again evangelical or apologetic assertions regarding the claims of Christ will often quote the claims made by Jesus himself (in the Gospel of John) with the alternatives posed 'Mad, bad or God,' without allowing that there may be a further alternative (viz. Christian claims about Jesus rather than Jesus' claims about himself).”[21] 
John Hick writes, “A further point of broad agreement among New Testament scholars...is that the historical Jesus did not make the claim to deity that later Christian thought was to make for him: he did not understand himself to be God, or God the Son, incarnate...such evidence as there is has led the historians of the period to conclude, with an impressive degree of unanimity, that Jesus did not claim to be God incarnate…the once popular form of apologetic which argues that someone claiming to be God must be either mad, or bad, or God; and since Jesus was evidently not mad or bad he must have been God (e.g. Lewis 1955. 51-2). With the recognition that Jesus did not think of himself in this way Christological discussion has moved from the once supposedly firm rock of Jesus’ own claim to the much less certain ground of the church’s subsequent attempts to formulate the meaning of his life. It is worth pausing to reflect on the magnitude of this change. From at least the fifth to the late nineteenth century Christians generally believed that Jesus had proclaimed himself to be God the Son, second person of a divine Trinity, living a human life; and their discipleship accordingly included this as a central article of faith. But that supposed dominical authority has dissolved under historical scrutiny.”[22] 

Lastly, in the same book (or talks) in which Lewis presents his argument, he also gives another somewhat famous paragraph: “Here is another thing that used to puzzle me. Is it not frightfully unfair that this new life should be confined to people who have heard of Christ and been able to believe in Him? But the truth is God has not told us what His arrangements about the other people are. We do know that no man can be saved except through Christ; we do not know that only those who know Him can be saved through Him, but in the meantime, if you are worried about the people outside, the most unreasonable thing you can do is to remain outside yourself.”[23] If indeed the trilemma is the best argument in which to persuade people, and if “Lord” is synonymous with the declarative “God” (lunatic/mad, liar/bad/ Lord/God), how then can his statement be reconciled? Could there possibly be those “saved by him” who do not know him as “lord”? If they do not know he is “lord” does that then mean he is a liar or lunatic to them? Of course not, because knowledge “about” Jesus, is not a prerequisite for salvation. If that were the case, then only those who understood the proper tenants of Orthodox Christianity could be declared “saved”, rendering all who came before the Councils (that got Orthodoxy “straightened out”)[24], lost and without hope. It is not about knowledge of “correct” developed dogma, or Jesus’ right place in the cosmological order of God’s universe[25] that saves, rather it is believing God alone saves, forgives, and judges. The way He has chosen to do so is through the one anointed/appointed for the task, and that is Jesus. 
This is just one small illustration regarding the problems aroused on the basis from which Lewis built this specific ideology. There are many other passages that create equally challenging scenarios for his theory. My desire is not to point fingers or cast stones at Lewis, but on the other hand I believe his conclusions in this area can cause tremendous difficulties if followed all the way through.



[1] Lewis, C.S. (1946) The Great Divorce, HarperCollins Edition 2001 pg. VIIf [2] In this proposal, Lord becomes synonymous to God, which is not at all true to the language.
[3] Generally speaking, anything less than a high Christological “self awareness” on Jesus part or of his identity is quickly met with the “nothing more than mere man” challenge. This in and of itself is somewhat of a delusional statement, made without regard to the scriptures treatment of many individuals.
[4] Interpretation can depend on whether “son” would be defined in terms of Adoptionism or rather literal terms of Jesus having no earthly father in the same sense used of Adam (Lk. 3:38). To interpret this through the lens of Trinitarianism’s “eternally begotten Son or Word” is to corroborate something the scriptures do not.
[5] When surveying the Greek word theos, many are unaware of what is being communicated because of the eradication of true scriptural monotheism. In linguistics, it is not wrong to use the word theos (god) in relation to Jesus, but when this is done, it is not seen by Christianity as it was intended, because in general a separation of God and god cannot be made, as theos is used of men and angel alike; it is a title not a name.
[6] This word is kurios, i.e. lord. “lords, what must I do to be saved?” He referred to Paul and Silas as 'kurios'. Lord is a title, not a name, used for men and God.
[7] Dunn, James D. G. (2010) Did the First Christians Worship Jesus?: The New Testament Evidence, Westminister John Knox Press, pg. 110
[8] YHVH - meaning the “four letters”, the Divine personal name of the God of Israel in the Hebrew Scriptures. It is even found in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures (Septuagint, LXX) sometimes instead of the Greek kurios.
[9] There is also relationship to Psalm 110:1 implied, which is the most frequently quoted OT passage in the NT, “The LORD [YHVH] says to my Lord [adoni]: "Sit at My right hand Until I make Your enemies a footstool for Your feet.
[10] Claiming/confessing Jesus is/as lord is quite different than proclaiming him to be (the) God (of Israel).
[11] Circa 500 C.E. following the Council of Chalcedon.
[12] For some in Christianity, this is no trouble if your worldview is progressive revelation coupled with the understanding that the early councils were commissioned by God, governed by Godly men and thus a conduit of God’s directives pertaining to the Scriptures for producing Christian “orthodoxy”. To take the conclusions of the post-apostolic councils as authoritative is to step outside of the “scripture alone”.
[13] Kreeft, Peter (1988). Fundamentals of the Faith: Essays in Christian Apologetics, pg. 59. San Francisco, Ignatius Press
[14] Lindsley, Art (2005), C.S. Lewis’s Case For Christ, Insights from reason, imagination and faith, IVP, 
[15] He footnotes II Cor. 5.19 
[16] Either God or a bad man 
[17] He footnotes here, “Indeed, by implication he denied being God: ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone’ (Mark 10.18).” 
[18] Robinson, John A. T. 1963, Honest to God, Westminster John Knox Press pg. 71f. 
[19] Wright, N.T. (1998) Jesus and the Identity of God, Ex Auditu 1998, 14, 42–56 
[20] Wright, N. T. (March 2007). Simply Lewis: Reflections on a Master Apologist After 60 Years, Touchstone Magazine 
[21] Dunn, James D.G. (1985) The Evidence for Jesus, The Westminister Press, pg. 31f 
[22] Hick, John, (2006) The Metaphor of God Incarnate, Second Edition: Christology in a Pluralistic Age, Westminster John Knox Press, pp. 27, 29
[23] Lewis, C.S. Mere Christianity: A Revised and Amplified Edition, pg. 64 
[24] I say this satirically.
[25] Messiah, Son of God, Son of Man, God incarnate, second member of the Trinity etc., etc. 

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