Mad, Bad, God … or None of the Above

Bob Seidensticker and Leah Libresco have been discussing C.S. Lewis’s ‘trilemma,’ AKA the “Mad, Bad or God” or “Liar, Lunatic or Lord” problem. Bob goes with the most obvious response from an atheist: the stories of Jesus claiming divinity are fictitious. Leah skirts around that:

Lewis’s Trilemma is a very narrowly targeted apologetic argument, and it’s often truncated when quoted, so it’s easy to make Bob’s mistake. Lewis is framing his argument for an interlocutor that concedes that Jesus existed, said the things in the Gospels, but thinks that Jesus is basically a Martin Luther King Jr figure.

I’d like to point out that the non-truncated version would have to be larger than Mere Christianity itself. While I agree that the accuracy of the Biblical stories is an implicit assumption in Lewis’s book, but I don’t believe he ever spells it out.

But alright, the first premise is that the Gospels are accurate as to Jesus’s words and deed. And since Lewis mentions the reactions of Jesus’s enemies, let’s assume that those reports are accurate as well. And let’s assume that the authors of the Bible didn’t leave out any times that Jesus’s enemies got “the impression of silliness and conceit.” Basically, let’s just assume divine authorship of the Bible, which I suspect is the only way to get the level of accuracy that Lewis’s problem requires.

As an aside, I’m not sure even this is helpful. The Jesus with the messianic secret in Mark is not the more open Jesus of John. When asked if he is the “son of the Blessed,” Mark’s Jesus says “I am,” yet Matthew’s Jesus gives an equivocal answer, “You have said so.” But why would Matthew hesitate? These problems don’t go away by arguing that the texts are accurate, they’re actually worsened.

Whom Do I Say That I Am?

The first problem is that we have to assume that Jesus was actually claiming to be the Son of God. There have been many people, like the 18th century rationalists, who believed that the Gospels were sound journalism but that Jesus did not claim to be God. They could argue that the statements of Jesus’s divinity were ambiguous and open to interpretation. And they could point to statements like “No one is good except God alone” to argue that Jesus had no self understanding of being God incarnate.

These arguments faded away as higher criticism arose. Friedrich Strauss argued against both rationalism and literalism in his Life of Jesus Critically Examined. But if we roll back higher criticism, the rationalist arguments will still be there.

Lewis also makes a big deal out of the fact that Jesus forgave sins. Or more carefully, Jesus proclaimed that sins were forgiven. As N.T. Wright pointed out, “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.” This is also not unique to Jesus; John the Baptist also seemed to offer forgiveness of sins in the form of baptism.

So here’s one failing to Lewis’s argument: it is possible to believe that Jesus said everything attributed to him yet still did not think himself to be the son of God and did not believe, as Leah suggests, that “that all of his teaching flows from his Sonship.”

Son of God, Son of Man

On to another problem. Let’s assume that Jesus did say that he was the son of God. The question becomes, what did he mean by that? The problem is that 1st century Judaism was a diverse and complicated religion. N.T. Wright again:

Jewish monotheism was much more complicated than was supposed by those who said so glibly that since Jews were monotheists they could not conceive of a human being as divine. Equally; it should be clear that to pick up a few phrases from John’s Gospel and elsewhere and to claim on the basis of them that Jesus simply “claimed to be divine,” is far too simplistic and may well by implication buy in to similarly misleading views of what “divinity” might actually mean. [The Challenge of Jesus, p 106]

Briefly, there are ways in which a 1st century Jewish prophet could have used incarnational language and yet not meant what we mean in trinitarian theology. Wright suggests that Jesus “believed himself called to act as the new Temple,” but that’s more that we can handle in this discussion.

And of course, there are plenty of other options. Lewis confidently suggests that since Jesus was Jewish he could not have been pantheistic. Apparently Jews have a gene that blocks such things. Obviously, Jesus could have been outside of mainstream Jewish theology and embraced some sort of pantheism or panentheism. Or he could have been a mystic who had experience what Freud called “the oceanic feeling,” and come away believing that all is one with God.

And so on and so forth. Essentially, it is possible to believe that Jesus called himself the son of God and yet not believe that Lewis’s straightforward trinitarian formulation is correct. Even if we accept all the unspoken premises of Lewis’s argument, it is still far too simplistic.

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