Examining C.S. Lewis' Trilemma


Bassam Zawadi

C.S. Lewis is a man who needs no introduction. He was indeed one of the most influential Christian figures of the 20th century. His works fascinatingly appeal to a broad audience of readers from different religious backgrounds (including myself). However, despite enjoying his works, one cannot resist but strongly disagree with some of their content. I am speaking specifically about C.S. Lewis's famous "Jesus was either a lunatic, liar or Lord" argument.

This popular argument is heavily cited by Christian laity today against people of other faiths - particularly Muslims who hold Jesus to be so dear to them - mainly due to its revival by popular Christian apologists like Josh McDowell (see Josh McDowell, The New Evidence that Demands a Verdict (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1999), page 157).

It's disappointing that Christians do not offer alternatives besides the above three. This could be due to 1) their inability to think and comprehend, or 2) their stubbornness that they are right and their close-mindedness to entertain other views, or 3) their sheer ignorance of the reality of scholarship.

However, as I will show below, it is refreshing to see that respected Christian scholars - including the conservative ones - could see the fallaciousness of this supposed trilemma.

Lewis's famous argument is stated as follows:

I am trying 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.

We are faced, then, with a frightening alternative. This man we are talking about either was (and is) just what He said or else a lunatic, or something worse.. I have to accept the view that He was and is God. (C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, (New York: MacMillan, 1943), pages 55-56)

Conservative New Testament scholar Craig L. Blomberg takes issue with this view and states in the introduction of his famous book The Historical Reliability of the Gospels:

The problem with this argument is that it assumes what is regularly denied, namely, that the gospels give entirely accurate accounts of the actions and claims of Jesus ... This option represents the most common current explanation of the more spectacular deeds and extravagant claims of Jesus in the gospels. (Craig L. Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of the Gospels, (Intervarsity Press, 1987), page xx)

Liberal New Testament scholar and former Bishop J.A.T. Robinson protests against Lewis' argument:

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' ... 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. I am not happy about this argument. None of the disciples in the Gospels 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." (John A.T. Robinson, Honest to God (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1963), pages 71-72)

Liberal theologian Professor John Hick states:

In this, one of the earliest christologies, the human Jesus was raised to a unique and highly exalted role (though not to deity) shortly after his death.

All this rules out the once popular form of apologetic which argues that someone claiming to be God must be either mad, or bad, or 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. (John Hick, The Metaphor of God Incarnate: Christology in a Pluralistic Age, 2nd ed. (Louisville: WJK, 2005), pages 28-29)

Conservative New Testament scholar Craig Evans said:

When it comes to evaluating Jesus, popular Christian apologists often appeal to the triad of options proposed by C.S. Lewis half a century ago: Jesus was either a liar, lunatic or Lord. The appeal makes for good alliteration, maybe even good rhetoric, but it is faulty logic. Without further qualification, those who adhere to this line of argument commit the fallacy of excluded middle. That is, they overlook other viable alternatives. At least two other alternatives are possible; both relate to how Scripture is understood and both come into play in the books that Fabricating Jesus criticizes.

fourth alternative is that Jesus is neither liar, lunatic nor Lord (in the traditional, orthodox sense); he is something else. He may be Israel's messiah, the Lord's servant and perhaps the greatest prophet who ever lived. He could even be called God's son, but not in the trinitarian sense, in which Jesus is seen as fully God and fully human. As far as we know, this more or less agrees with Ebionite Christianity, a form of Jewish Christianity that emerged in the second century and eventually disappeared sometime in the fifth century. The Ebionites possessed one or more edited versions of the Gospel of Mathew, which tended to enhance the status of the law and minimize the divine nature of Jesus. They believe that in the sense King David could be called God's son (as in Ps 2:7) Jesus also could be called son of God. But Ebionites did not hold to what theologians call "high Christology" - that is, the view that Jesus is divine. The Ebionite understanding of Jesus is pretty close to the view of two of the scholars considered later in this chapter.

fifth alternative is that we really don't know who Jesus was, what he really said and did, what he thought of himself, or what his companions thought of him, because the New Testament Gospels and other sources we have are not reliable. The New Testament Gospels may well present Jesus as Israel's Messiah and as God's Son, but for all we know, that is nothing more than the theology of Christians who lived in the second half of the first century, Christians who had never met Jesus and had never heard him teach. (Craig Evans, Fabricating Jesus: How Modern Scholars Distort the Gospels, (Illinois: Intervarsity Press, 2006), pages 20-21)

So, as we can see, there are at least two other possible alternatives: 1) Jesus' words are not to be understood as him claiming to be God, therefore making the position of Muslim apologists and Unitarian Christians who argue that Jesus did not claim to be divine to be a possibility and 2) Even if the New Testament does clearly show that Jesus claimed to be God, these words may be falsely attributed to Jesus.

In conclusion, Christians who keep posing this argument need to start being a little more open-minded and realize there are other alternatives they must engage with. To keep shoving this logically fallacious trilemma down the throats of people will do nothing but push them further away from them and create barriers to having a serious intellectual dialogue surrounding the topic of the historical Jesus.



Shamoun wrote a response to my article here.  

He wasted his time writing nonsense and not even addressing my argument. 

My article was not intended to refute the trilemma. I didn't provide any arguments that attempted to deny that Jesus claimed divinity or the historicity of any Biblical Jesus' statements. My only intention was to point out that CS Lewis was wrong for providing only three possible (I didn't even say plausible, but possible) choices while there are at least two other possible alternatives. That's all. I didn't attack nor support any alternative; I was merely pointing out that Christians can't just come up to a Muslim and say, "You have these three choices and no other possible choice." Rather, the Christian needs to address the other two alternatives as well.  

Shamoun laughingly states: 

Hence, there is nothing logically fallacious with Lewis' Trilemma once it is presented accurately.  

Shamoun says this after he believes that the Christian is successful in proving both the ascription of Jesus' words to Jesus himself and after proving that their interpretation shows that Jesus claimed divinity. Obviously, the trilemma would be successful after eliminating the other two alternatives.  

Shamoun claims I intentionally cited Craig Blomberg and Craig Evans to show they disbelieved in the trilemma. Here, Shamoun is being disingenuous. I already know that Blomberg and Evans believe that Jesus is divine and that the NT is reliable, which is why I referred to them as conservatives! But what I was citing from them was the fact that they knew that you could not just throw Lewis's Trilemma into people's faces without proving your case first. That is why Evans said that the trilemma is "faulty logic" and why Blomberg said that the trilemma has a "problem." The point is that Christians can't approach people and expect them to take it as a given that the New Testament is accurate and that Jesus claimed divinity. Christians must prove these things first, and then they could offer us the trilemma. But for them to provide us with the Trilemma right from the beginning, that is fallacious!

Shamoun must learn to understand the critiques he is attempting to "refute." Or perhaps Shamoun falls under the second category of people that I mentioned:

It's disappointing that Christians do not offer alternatives besides the above three. This could be due to 1) their inability to think and comprehend, or 2) their stubbornness that they are right and their close-mindedness to entertain other views, or 3) their sheer ignorance of the reality of scholarship.

Perhaps Shamoun is so highly stubborn that he thinks the integrity of the New Testament is indisputable. He thinks it is so clear that it doesn't require proving it and that all New Testament scholarship engaged in critiquing the New Testament is not just merely wrong but completely outrageous even to perform.

Shamoun then goes on a spree of citing scholars to try and prove his beliefs, yet I never attempted to prove my case in my original article; hence, all of Shamoun's arguments are red herrings. My only intention was to cite scholars who disagreed with the trilemma. One could still believe that Jesus is God and that the New Testament is inerrant, yet still find the trilemma to be fallacious. 

Shamoun said:

They appeal to disbelieving scholars in order to attack the reliability of the NT so as to convince their constituents that the Divine claims attributed to Jesus in the Gospels are fabricated and were never uttered by the historical Jesus. However, these same Muslim "apologists" do not realize (or simply do not care) the kind of impact that such unbelieving scholarship has on their own Islamic beliefs. The Muslims are inconsistently applying the criticisms and arguments of liberal scholars against the Holy Bible and yet never bother to apply these same arguments against their own views; nor do they stop to think for a moment of how these assaults against the NT affect their Islamic beliefs concerning Jesus. 

The Qur'an and the Bible are different books examined by different standards. I challenge Sam Shamoun to point out one argument I used against preserving the New Testament that would harm the preservation of the Qur'an.

Also, Shamoun thinks that consistent methodology requires one to agree with everything that a particular scholar believes. Shamoun doesn't allow Muslims to take what they find convincing from a scholar and leave out what they don't find compelling. I'm sure my readers know this is absurd reasoning; hence, I don't need to address that.  

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