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Lord, Liar, or Lunatic: C.S. Lewis and the Jesus Trilemma

Was Jesus Whom He Claimed?


Is Jesus really whom he is reported to have said he was? Was Jesus really the Son of God? C.S. Lewis believed so and also believed that he had a very good argument for convincing people to agree: if Jesus was not whom he claimed, then he must be a lunatic, a liar, or worse. He was certain that no one could seriously argue for or accept these alternatives and that left only his favored explanation.

Lewis expressed his idea in more than one place, but the most definitive appears in Mere Christianity:

    “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 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. 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.”

What we have here is a false dilemma (or trilemma, since there are three options). Several possibilities are presented as if they are the only ones available. One is preferred and defended strongly while the others are presented as weak and inferior. This is a typical tactic for C.S. Lewis, as John Beversluis writes:

    “One of Lewis’s most serious weaknesses as an apologist is his fondness for the false dilemma. He habitually confronts his readers with the alleged necessity of choosing between two alternatives when there are in fact other options to be considered. One horn of the dilemma typically sets forth Lewis’s view in all its apparent forcefulness, while the other horn is a ridiculous straw man. Either the universe is the product of a conscious Mind or it is a mere “fluke” (MC. 31). Either morality is a revelation or it is an inexplicable illusion (PP, 22). Either morality is grounded in the supernatural or it is a “mere twist” in the human mind (PP, 20). Either right and wrong are real or they are “mere irrational emotions” (CR, 66). Lewis advances these arguments again and again, and they are all open to the same objection.”

In this case, there are other possibilities which Lewis does not effectively eliminate. For example, perhaps Jesus was simply mistaken or that we don’t have an accurate record of what he truly said — if, indeed, he even existed. Lewis’ argument is in fact unacceptable in the context of first century Palestine, where Jews were actively awaiting a messiah to rescue them. It’s implausible that they would have greeted incorrect claims of messianic status with labels like “liar” or “lunatic.” Instead, they would have moved on to await another claimant.

It isn’t even necessary to go into much detail about alternative possibilities in order to dismiss Lewis’ argument because the options of “liar” and “lunatic” are themselves not refuted by Lewis. It’s clear that Lewis doesn’t regard them as credible, but he doesn’t give good reasons for anyone else to agree — he’s trying to persuade psychologically, not intellectually. There’s no good reason to insist that Jesus isn’t similar to other religious leaders like Joseph Smith, David Koresh, Marshall Applewhite, Jim Jones, and Claude Vorilhon. Are they liars? Lunatics? A bit of both?

Of course, Lewis’ primary goal is to argue against the liberal theological view of Jesus as a great human teacher, but there is nothing contradictory about someone being a great teacher while also being (or becoming) insane or also lying. No one is perfect and Lewis makes an error in assuming from the outset that Jesus’ teaching aren’t worth following unless he is perfect. In effect, then, his infamous false trilemma is based upon the premise of this false dilemma.

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