Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Collapsing the Trilemma

One famous argument meant to prove the divinity of Jesus is C.S. Lewis’s Trilemma. Lewis puts forth three possibilities as to the identity of Jesus, and rejects two of them, leaving behind only the conclusion that he must have been divine. This is a really, really terrible argument—so much so that it's almost not worth covering. But people really do use it, and it's kind of fun to pick apart anyway. Here it is as a syllogism:
  1. Jesus was either a liar, a lunatic, or God.
  2. Jesus was not a liar or a lunatic.
  3. Therefore, Jesus was God.
In this formulation, the conclusion follows from the premises, but that's basically the best we can say about it. There's a very tenuous train of logic behind this argument: first is the assertion that Jesus claimed to be God. If he knew he wasn't God, he was a liar, while if he was mistaken about his claim, he was a lunatic. Jesus appears to be of sound mind, so he can't be a lunatic. And he's such a great moral teacher that he can't possibly be lying. The only other option is that he must have been God.

Liar and Lunatic
I'll tackle the second premise first. Lewis hugely exaggerates the implications of Jesus being mistaken or making a false claim to divinity. In these two cases, Lewis says in Mere Christianity, Jesus is either "on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg—or else he would be the Devil of Hell."

Mmm, poached egg...
and on toast, no less.
He's wrong on both counts. I'll start with the "lunatic" prong: First of all, claiming to be God is more grandiose, but certainly far more sensible than claiming to be a "poached egg"—God would be capable of intelligent interaction, and is even anthropomorphized in the Old Testament. Second, plenty of people make startling and ridiculous claims about themselves and yet appear to be completely normal under most circumstances. And third, the gospels record on multiple occasions that people think Jesus is crazy or demon-possessed (Mark 3:20-22; John 8:48-52John 10:19-21)—and this is from sources that portray him sympathetically!

Then comes the "liar" prong of the Trilemma. Would falsely claiming to be God necessarily make someone on par with "the Devil of Hell," as Lewis claims? Certainly not. For example, perhaps Jesus was a great moral teacher, but told a single lie in the hope that it would help spread his moral teachings far and wide. Doing a little evil to achieve a much greater good seems like a perfectly plausible rationalization for a moral teacher to make. And even if this lie did imply that Jesus was evil, so what? Maybe his teachings were a charade put on for the purpose of gaining widespread fame, in the style of some modern televangelists. These scenarios may not be likely, but they're much more probable than the "God" conclusion, and they demonstrate why the blanket assumptions made in the Trilemma are problematic.

The Other Options
The first premise is even flimsier than the second. There is no reason to limit one's options to Lord, liar and lunatic. We can instead question the entire basis of the claims, and even consider the possibility that Jesus never existed at all (a topic that I plan to do more research on in the future). We'll call this the "fabrication" view. To be sure, most historians think he existed. But due to the startling lack of reliable evidence both inside and outside the Bible, there seems to be a small but nevertheless very real chance that this theory is correct.

And then we have the view that a man named Jesus existed, but never claimed to be God—the divinity claims found in the Bible were invented by later writers. We'll call this the "legend" view. This is the actual position of many New Testament scholars today. Some believe that he only thought of himself as an agent of God, or a kind of apocalyptic prophet warning the world of impending judgment. Once we drop the unnecessary and question-begging assumption that the gospels provide an accurate portrayal of Jesus, the Trilemma completely falls apart.

In the first section I showed that the two prongs of the Trilemma that Lewis wants us to deny are actually fairly plausible. In the second, I added two more prongs to create a "Pentalemma." Now we must choose between liar, lunatic, legend, fabrication, or God—and any of the first four labels are more likely to describe Jesus than the latter one. In light of the current Biblical scholarship, the legend viewpoint seems most probable.

Lewis' Trilemma is flawed on multiple levels: it takes the reliability of the gospels for granted, it throws out two valid options, and it completely ignores the other options available to us. In a way I hope that apologists continue to use this argument, because it's so transparently awful that it should instantly make people skeptical of any other claims that they make.

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