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.

  • blotonthelandscape

    Frank Viola pulled this one out in his “Reasons I believe” list. It has to be the most over-used Lewis apology on the netz; definitely up there with Pascals Wager and Kalam.

    • Vorjack

      You’d think that after William Lane Craig declared that it didn’t work that people would stop using it. Not yet at least.

      • trj

        Never underestimate the inanity of apologetics. Apologists will probably stop using Lewis’s trilemma at about the same time creationists will stop claiming evolution violates the second law of thermodynamics.

  • David Evans

    Even if Jesus believed himself to be the second person of the Trinity, that would not put him (as Lewis suggests) on a level with a lunatic who believes himself to be a poached egg. The poached-egg hypothesis is easy to disprove, and believing it shows one to be seriously out of touch with reality. Theological delusions are entirely compatible with living a normal life and even with being a great moral teacher. This can be seen from the fact that great moral teachers have appeared within all the major religions, not all of which can be true.

    • Reginald Selkirk

      The word “Trinity” does not appear in the Bible.

      • David Evans

        This is true. But the concepts of God the Father, the Son of God and the Holy Spirit certainly appear there.

        • Reginald Selkirk

          The notion that they are three persons in one God, i.e. the essence of the trinity doctrine, appears only once, in a passage which was added centuries later.

  • Lana

    Its definitely over simplified. I had a hindu in Asia (where I live) tell me that John 14, “I am the way the truth and the life, no one comes to the father but by me,” means that Jesus represents the seed in all of us, and that none of us can get enlightenment but through this seed. He was saying that Jesus talks in the same language as the Buddha, a mystified language.

    I am not hindu or buddhists, but its interesting to see that there are many interpretations, and its not so simplistic.

  • Keulan

    I agree with the first commenter Nox on Bob Seidenstickler’s blog post, who wrote this: “Liar and lunatic are completely valid possibilities. As are fictional character, inaccurately quoted, or earnestly misunderstood. In the real dilemma there are at least five options more likely than lord.” Lewis ignored several other possibilities about Jesus when he came up with his silly trilemma.

  • Dan

    Christians themselves often use this argument on people who certainly don’t believe “that Jesus existed, said the things in the Gospels, but … that Jesus is basically a Martin Luther King Jr figure.” That may have been who Lewis was originally applying the argument to, but the trilema is now often used by apologists and pastors on us atheists and members of other religions, so Bob’s criticisms are still apt for how Lewis’ argument is usually used today.

  • Agnikan

    He was a mad, bad incarnation of God.